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Phil Dent Goes on Emotional Ride With Son

Phil Dent is 49 and says he must be shrinking because all his life he has considered himself six feet tall except that now the measuring stick keeps telling him he is only 5 feet 11.

Once Dent lost to Jimmy Connors in the finals of the Australian Open. Once Dent lost to Brian Gottfried in the semifinals of the French Open. Once Dent was an 18-year-old tennis player with high hopes and a certain unstoppable confidence that must be part of the makeup of any top-level athlete.

Now Phil Dent is the father who sits in the stands and describes his stomach as “a surfboard, riding the waves, going up and down,” as he watches his son. And the son is an 18-year-old named Taylor. Phil and Taylor live in Newport Beach and practice Taylor’s trade at the Costa Mesa Tennis Center, an unassuming collection of outdoor courts hidden behind the Orange County Fairgrounds. It is not a fancy-schmancy place where you’d expect a champion to be made but it is where Phil comes to coach Taylor.

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Taylor is 6-2 and wants nothing more in the world than to be a top-level professional athlete. Taylor is a tennis player too, you see, and though this hadn’t been the plan necessarily, Phil has put his heart and soul into helping Taylor achieve this dream.

On Monday at UCLA, in the first round of the Mercedes-Benz Cup, Dent took a thorough beating from another young American, 22-year-old Justin Gimelstob. Gimelstob has been a pro for three years and has advanced as far as the third round of the U.S. Open once, but his 1999 record was only 9-17 before Monday’s match. The former UCLA star’s ranking of 85th in the world is not where Gimelstob would have expected when he abandoned his college career after one season.

Dent appeared thoroughly flummoxed on the court, lost 6-2, 6-2 in 44 minutes and fled the premises almost immediately. When a teenager’s proud game is taken apart and not by Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi, how does a father consoles the son?

“You’ve got to let him learn on his own,” Phil said Tuesday while he sat at a picnic table at the Costa Mesa Tennis Center. “You try and tell him it’s a long road and that he can’t think about this one loss or computer points or his ranking. You try and tell him this is a developmental process that takes time and that every match is a step. But you also sit in the stands and your stomach becomes a surf board, up and down. You want to say something and you can’t.”

Taylor is not around. He “has gone away to rest,” Phil said, headed down to San Diego to stay with his mother, Betty Ann Grout. Betty Ann also was a touring pro and so maybe it is inevitable that the son would like to be a tennis star, but Phil said there was never a plan. Taylor didn’t even start playing tennis until he was nearly 11, soccer being his first choice. But when Taylor began picking up the racket, success came quickly and the talent was obvious. “Great hand-eye coordination,” Phil said. “Just a natural skill.”

His own tennis career had begun at a younger age. Phil was the son of a cab driver in Sydney, Australia and, Phil says, “There wasn’t anything else to do. We didn’t even have a television.” Phil took off on his own as an 18-year-old too and when an Aussie left then for the start of the year’s circuit, he was leaving home for 10 months. But it also was a gentler world, a world where Phil traveled as part of a team. There was a coach--the legendary Harry Hopman at the beginning--and most of the Australian pros traveled together. There was someone to talk to, to laugh with, to complain to. “A mate,” as Phil explains. “We could compete like hell on the court and then go have a drink together afterward.”

Even today some of Phil’s traveling teammates live nearby in Newport Beach. Syd Ball, Ross Case. Australians such as Rod Laver and Roy Emerson made temporary homes in Newport Beach, a place to rest up when it made no sense to travel all the way home to Australia and many of them have stayed permanently.

It was wonderful, this camaraderie. Phil remembers when he was 16 and invited to join the Australian Davis Cup team for two weeks of training before a big Davis Cup match. “One afternoon Roy Emerson asked me to serve to his forehand,” Phil says. “For three hours I served to Roy Emerson’s forehand. We played points and it was the greatest thing for a 16-year-old. You know, you get a bit of a slap in the head. You realize how much better the top players really were. But, believe me, at the end of that afternoon, my serve to the forehand side was a lot better.”

Taylor is not Australian, though. He was born in Santa Ana. The only time Taylor acquires an Aussie accent is when he sweetly mocks his dad. Phil and Betty Ann are divorced and it is Phil who is in charge of the son and of the tennis. But Phil cannot recreate for Taylor the team atmosphere that made his pro career fun.

Phil wishes Taylor would have the chance to regularly practice with top Americans such as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, but that is not the way it happens here. Americans tend to gather an entourage of coaches and agents and trainers. Right now Phil is Taylor’s entourage.

This, of course, causes the whispers and second-guessing. As Taylor struggles to grow into his serve-and-volley game, a game that takes longer to mature than baseline tennis, people will watch Taylor absorb a bad loss to a Gimelstob and decide that Taylor should not have turned pro so quickly and wonder if the father isn’t pushing too hard, trying to relive the past. Phil just laughs at this and shakes his head no.

Indeed, Taylor should be a new high school graduate. But after he won the Southern Section high school title as a freshman at Corona del Mar, Taylor quit playing prep tennis and pretty much traditional high school, choosing to take courses at home and get his GED instead. So college tennis was not Taylor’s blueprint, Phil says.

Instead, Taylor turned pro last summer. He has played a mixture of satellite and challenger events and accepted the occasional main draw wild-card invitations, which is how he landed in the Mercedes-Benz Cup on Monday.

And this brings its own pressure. A wild-card spot means one less place in the draw for a player with a higher ranking. Taylor knows this. He walks onto the court at UCLA and he wants to show he deserved the free ride into the main draw. “Yeah, I think it gets to him,” Phil says. Taylor also brought to the circuit some of the burden of being considered a possible successor to Sampras and Agassi as well as the burden of being the son of an ex-pro. In other words, people know him more than some other 18-year-old. People aim for him more. People notice the losses more.

“So what can you do,” Phil says. “You go on with the process. I’m here to help him avoid some of the pitfalls. It can be hard out there. He’s a target. That’s part of the life. We just go on.”

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com


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