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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 09, 2002

A flurry of emotions on the court A flurry of emotions on the court (August 09, 2002)

Gunn senior Gabbi Hernandez looking for a title at Alpine Hills

by Nathan Kurz

Gabbi Hernandez is always scowling on the tennis court. She frowns when a once promising winner goes awry and lands a few inches past the baseline. She glares after a potentially-piercing serve flies straight into the net. She even grimaces after landing a beautifully-angled volley at the net.

Off the court, Hernandez is as diffident, mellow and polite as she is focused on hard court.

Meet Palo Alto's own Jekyll and Hyde, a product of her tennis-playing father, and an athletic monster looking to claim her first 18-and-under title today in the Alpine Hills Fall Junior Classic Open. The second-seeded Hernandez will meet No. 1 Allie Lipton - against whom she is 1-1 in her career - at 11:30 a.m. at Alpine Hills Country Club in Portola Valley.

Menlo grad and No. 1 seeded David Kaplan also advanced to today's 11:30 boys 18-and-under final at Alpine Hills-where he will play fellow Menloite and teammate Scott Blumenkranz.

Finally, Morgan MacBride, a member of Alpine Hills' 15-and-under team championship squad, reached today's 9 a.m. 14-and-under final with a 6-3, 6-4 win over David Clark yesterday.

Hernandez advanced by beating fourth-seeded Connie Chang 7-6, 6-2, and earlier won two matches Wednesday; she breezed past Julie Martin, 6-1, 6-1 in the morning, and then whipped through Elizabeth Targan, 6-0, 6-1 later that afternoon.

The rising Gunn senior, who celebrated her 17th birthday Thursday, would like nothing more than to spill a little Menlo blood for her own belated birthday present.

After all, last year she was eliminated by Menlo grad and current Princeton Tiger Michelle Leutzinger in the semi-finals in straight sets. So she's got her sets sight on redeeming herself versus another former Menlo sensation whose sister, Ashley Lipton, is a tennis phenom and has been featured in Sports Illustrated. Allie, 15, transferred to Monta Vista after her freshman year at Menlo

"I just need to have more poise and keep hanging in there," said Hernandez about today's match.

You wouldn't even guess she demonstrates any poise at all after observing her on-court demeanor; her troubled facial expressions and self-deprecating rants suggest a Monica Seles-like comparison.

"People always tell me I'm intense," said Hernandez, ranked 44th in the latest USTA NorCal Junior Standings. "They say I'm always too serious and look too mad."

She asserts she gets the on-court seriousness from her 60-something father Willie.

He doesn't seem to disagree.

"The moment you lose concentration, you can lose a match even to a lesser player," said Willie Hernandez.

If only she could get his tennis game, she'd be set for life.

In his teens, Willie Hernandez was an amateur tennis star. He was a junior champion in singles and doubles in Japan in 1957 at 17, played in Australia the next year, and eventually played in some modern tennis Grand Slam tournaments.

Before 1967, there was no such thing as a professional tennis circuit. What is now called the ATP tour didn't even exist; tennis tournaments were replete with amateurs. This disorganized state of tennis allowed Willie to play at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and in New York - with some mild success.

He reached the round of 16 at both the French Open and Wimbledon in doubles on separate occasions. His biggest victory, however, came in a 4-day Arizona tournament when he beat Arthur Ashe.

These days, Willie Hernandez is a third-year Gunn boys tennis coach and Gabbi's own professional tutor.

"I noticed her when she was a kid and she loved to compete," said Willie Hernandez. "I wondered if maybe she'd turn out to be a tennis player."

And Willie was able to realize this dream when intensive training between father and daughter started in 1997 (when the family returned from Willie's homeland of the Philippines to America). Since then, the Foster City-born teenager has come a long way - due in part to the iconoclastic nature of her dad.

In his coaching, Willie Hernandez has emphasized a one-handed backhand - used by tennis greats Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe - for quickness' sake and the immunity it provides the player from injuries like tennis elbow (while most players today use the more physically straining two-handed shot). He has forced his daughter to use an "Eastern" grip on the racket - where the player "shakes hands" with the racket and keeps the racket face standing up (while modern tennis neophytes are taught the "Western" grip, keeping their fists closed on the newer graphite racket and face open). Most of all, Willie Hernandez tries to push his daughter's focus away from the endorsement deals, scholarship offers and self-serving, arrogant attitudes. "If you're good enough, they will come and recruit you," he said. But it's clear to almost any avid junior tennis observer that Gabbi has two flaws keeping her from reaching her full potential. For one, she is sometimes prone to misfire on her first serves, leaving herself with a vulnerable, easily-returnable second serve. And Gabbi is reluctant to come up to the net, where she's actually been more consistent than she's been back at the baseline. "My dad wants me to come into the net more often," said Gabbi Hernandez. "I know most players are baseliners, so being different helps." At Alpine Hills, Hernandez surely stood out: she was the only local girl to make the finals. But several local boys had some successes of their own. Gunn's Michael Sun and Menlo's Christian Hansen both advanced to the quarterfinals of the 16-and-under draw before being eliminated. And also in the boys 14-and-under division, Palo Alto's Jonathan Liu and unseeded Jason Przybyla both reached the Round of 16 before being disposed of.

Meanwhile, several local players were involved in 18-and-under hard court championships across the nation. Stanford-bound James Pade, seeded sixth in the USTA Boys Super National Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was ousted by the No. 1 seed, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. However, by winning the Super National Clay Court Championships in Louisville earlier this season, Pade automatically qualified for the U.S. Open Junior Championships in September. Both Ashley Lipton of Menlo and Lejla Hodzic of Pinewood were entered in the girls version of the hard court tournament in San Jose, but Hodzic, the 17th seed, was the only one who had the possibility of advancing to today's quarterfinals. She beat Natalie Frazier of Riverdale, Georgia, 6-4, 6-4 earlier and played yesterday. The unseeded Lipton was eliminated in the Round of 64 by Carly Gullickson of Brentwood, Tennessee, 6-0, 6-2.


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