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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Salzenstein enjoying his current elevator ride in pro tennis Salzenstein enjoying his current elevator ride in pro tennis (July 25, 2001)

Former Stanford All-American coming off his third career title after winning USTA $50,000 Seascape Challenger

by Keith Peters

Jeff Salzenstein knows all about being on the professional tennis elevator, where rankings rise and fall like the stock market.

Salzenstein, a two-time All-American and 1996 Stanford University graduate, was on his way toward reaching the 140s on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings until suffering a number of injuries and undergoing ankle surgery in 1998 and knee surgery in 1999.

At that point in his career, Salzenstein's stock dropped into the 800s - a virtual purgatory for tennis professionals.

A lot of it has to do with health," Salzenstein said. "You're probably not going to go your whole career without an injury of some sort. When I got injured, it really hurt my progress."

Salzenstein did recover, as did his ranking. Both are in much-improved shape these days, especially following his victory in the $50,000 Seascape Challenger, a U.S. Tennis Association tournament that concluded Sunday at Seascape Sports Club in Aptos.

Obviously feeling comfortable in an area where he'd found so much success as a collegiate player, the 27-year-old Salzenstein milked the positive homecoming vibes and wrapped up his first Challenger victory of the year -- and third of his career -- by topping 22-year-old Jeff Morrison of Huntington, W.Va., 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, to earn the $7,200 winner's check. Morrison earned $4,240.

"I've been struggling all year so it's good to finally get it together," said Salzenstein, whose ATP ranking is expected to jump from No. 204 on the July 16 list into the 160s. "When I came here, nobody knew who I was, but later in the week I kind of felt like the hometown hero. I could feel that energy."

With Stanford coach Dick Gould looking on, Salzenstein avenged a loss to Morrison last month at the Queen's Club tournament in England and gave his comeback a shot in the arm.

All three of Salzenstein's Challenger victories have come since the injuries, which cost him nearly two years of action on the pro tour.

Morrison, the 1999 NCAA singles champion from the University of Florida, was nursing a strain of his right shoulder -- more critically, his serving shoulder. He let up on his serves in the second set because of the pain and, after the loss, pulled out of his next scheduled tournament this coming week, a Futures event in Missouri.

Salzenstein went up 5-0 in the first-set tiebreaker and closed out the set. He broke Morrison for a 3-1 lead in the second set and that was all he needed.

For Salzenstein, the quest continues to inch closer to that magic ranking of No. 100, which separates the sport's elite from all the challengers. Some sneak over it and quietly stay there forever. Some seem to leap over it with flair. Some seem to trip over that threshold before staying on the other side for a brief, unspectacular period.

Countless others encounter that cusp and just can't seem to max out their game and hit the next level.

"There are many examples of a guy riding a wave of confidence but not maintaining the level of play necessary to stay in the top 100," former Stanford star Paul Goldstein told Brent Ainsworth, media director of the Seascape Challenger. "That is why it is so important to continue to develop after making the breakthrough. It is probably equally difficult to stay there as to get there."

He speaks from experience. Goldstein has finished among the year-end top 100 the past two years but has to call No. 69 his best career ranking. He's hovering around No. 110 these days.

"For some people, the hump is No. 120 and for others it's No. 70," said Salzenstein, who starred for Stanford for four years instead of turning pro as a teen. "Every guy is different. There are a lot of factors, but one thing you notice in the top guys are that they have something to grab onto, like a big serve or big forehand. If you've got a guy who's not breaking into the top 50, he's probably lacking one or two weapons. And then on top of that, you have to have no weaknesses. Everything else in your game has to be great good, and a couple of things have to be great."

Goldstein told Ainsworth that a breakthrough in a tour event is important for two reasons. First, it provides a significant boost to one's confidence level, allowing the player to tell himself, 'I can compete and be successful at the highest level of tennis.' Second, because of the way the rankings work, a breakthrough at a tour event is going to significantly improve your ranking.

Those points earned stay on the ATP computer for a year, and players are guaranteed the opportunity to compete at higher-level tournaments for an extended period.

"The key," Goldstein told Ainsworth in an interview, "is to play with the same intensity and confidence that you gained by winning matches in the breakthrough tournament and at the lower level tournaments. Ride the wave as long as it lasts. If you lose a few matches in a row, it is important to take a step back, examine your game to see what weaknesses you need to perhaps improve in order to consistently play at the higher level."

Salzenstein can only hope he's riding that wave now and that he'll continue to improve and stay healthy.

Earlier in the tournament, the unseeded Salzenstein ousted former Menlo School standout Dmitry Tursunov, 7-6 (10-8), 7-5, in the quarterfinals. Tursunov was the No. 7 seed.

Former Palo Alto High standout Doug Bohaboy, who was knocked out of the singles in the opening round, reached the quarterfinals in doubles before losing.


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