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Leach Has His Day on Court

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dick Leach doesn’t play as much tournament tennis these days as he once did. Much of his tennis comes in friendly games with some of his longtime buddies.

Occasionally, he will also show up at the courts near his home in Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach and play against some of the thirty-to-fortysomething young lions of the neighborhood.

“They like to try to beat up on me, to show me that I made a mistake in not recruiting them at USC,” Leach said with a laugh.

Leach, 58, has been USC tennis coach since 1980, and his teams have won three national championships in the 1990s. He also is head of one of Orange County’s most prominent tennis families.

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Two of his sons, Rick and Jon, were stars for him at USC and a daughter, Mindy, played in college at Minnesota and Alabama. Rick is in his 12th season on the pro tour.

Dick Leach is still a highly regarded seniors doubles player. One of the tournaments he regularly plays in is the USTA men’s 50 and 55 Hardcourt Nationals, which are being held this week at Lindborg Racquet Club in Huntington Beach. He and partner Ken Stuart of Newport Beach won their first-round match Wednesday.

Leach says playing in a few events close to home each year helps him keep his perspective about how difficult the game can be at times, even for his highly skilled college players.

“Tournament tennis can bring out the best and worst in anyone, and it makes me realize what my team goes through sometimes,” Leach said. “A lot of coaches aren’t able to continue playing the sports they coach. And, like anyone after awhile, they sometimes remember only the good things they did and forget about the mistakes.

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“One of the good things about a sport like tennis is that you can continue playing it for a long time. I feel like I still know what it’s like when one of my players misses an easy shot. The problem I have now is that my mind knows what to do, but my feet won’t do it.”

Leach, who was an All-American at USC, was ranked No. 1 in 55 doubles as recently as three years ago, and is a former national doubles champion in the 45s. He won the USTA grass courts 40-and-over singles title in 1982.

But Leach says he doesn’t have the commitment to conditioning now that it takes to be a top-ranked seniors player.

“That’s what it’s all about in the seniors,” he said. “I was really active about 15 years ago, but I play tennis now mostly for the exercise. I don’t enjoy running on the beach and doing the conditioning anymore. And I really don’t have the time to travel to all the tournaments.”

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The national father-son tournament in La Jolla is one of Leach’s favorites. It’s no wonder. Leach has won it 13 times, eight times with Rick and five times with his younger son, Jon.

Rick remains one of the top doubles players on the pro tour. Jon also gave pro tennis a try for a while but has decided to move ahead with a career in business. He is working full time for an investment banking firm in Los Angeles, and studying for his MBA.

Leach’s other tennis-playing offspring, daughter Mindy, is now an elementary school teacher in Irvine.

Leach says he reserves part of his summer vacation to spend time with Rick on the tour, frequently at the French Open or Wimbledon, or both. “I don’t normally go to the U.S. Open because school is starting then and I want to be there for my players, but I can always take a red-eye flight if Rick gets to the finals,” he said.

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Leach says he still enjoys coaching as much as he did when his career began at Arcadia High in 1965.

Leach says he believes college tennis will be on an upswing again in the next few years.

“We went through that period when there weren’t that many great juniors [in the United States], but I think that’s starting to change again,” Leach said.

Leach would like to see more of the top players seriously consider putting off their pro careers until they have played in college. “A lot of them spend some time on the satellite tours anyway,” Leach said. “Many of them probably would be better off playing college tennis, then testing their game in some of the satellite tournaments in the summer.”

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Leach says he hopes Rick will consider joining him as an assistant coach when he retires from the pro tour, possibly even become his successor when he’s ready to retire.

“But I see myself staying there [at USC] forever,” Leach said. “Coaching is what keeps me feeling young.”


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