Sports

Callifornia tennis dreamin'

At 16, Jamil Al-Agba definitely is older, wiser, fitter and stronger than he was when he left Bremerton for sunny Southern California four years ago to pursue his dream of becoming a professional tennis player.

But is Al-Agba big enough to make it in tennis’ world of power and supersonic serves?

He stands 5-foot-9 and weighs just 135 pounds. And that’s after shooting up like a dandelion after a rainstorm, growing six inches this past year.

Everybody you talk to says he’s got the mind and the shot-making ability to play with the best tennis players in the world. But will he be big enough? Will his serve be powerful enough?

His current coach, Bobby Berger of Los Angeles, envisions big things down the road for Al-Agba.

“I can see him being a top-10 pro in the world,” Berger said. “Obviously, he’s got a long ways to go to reach that point. But you look at him, you can see he’s still growing into his body. In terms of filling out, that’s going happen. Right now he definitely doesn’t have the firepower that he’s going to have in two years. But he’s a great player ... he’s really talented.”

Erik Jacobsen, tennis pro at the Bremerton Tennis & Athletic Club, was among the coaches who worked with Al-Agba before his parents packed his bags and moved him down the coast in search of better competition and better weather.

“He doesn’t make mistakes,” Jacobsen said. “He’s got really good hands and a feel for the ball. He’s got really good control. He can put a ball on a dime.”

Jacobsen watched Al-Agba on the indoor courts at the BT&AC during a recent visit home.

“He hits everything a little harder, a little faster,” he said. “Everything’s a little better than it was a year or two ago.”

Right now, Al-Agba serves around 100 mph.

“But he gets a lot out of that hundred,” Berger said. “His hundred is pretty well disguised. He mixes it up up nice with a lot of motion. It’s just not big enough. And to make it on tour, it’s really about having a big game.

“If he can be serving bombs and has developed a weapon by the time he’s 18, he’ll have what it takes. If he’s serving in the 120s (mph) by the time he’s 19 or 20 and gets a good percentage in, he’ll be a fantastic player.”’

So far, Al-Agba’s size or serve haven’t stopped him from moving up the national junior ranks. He was No. 5 nationally in 16 singles, reaching the semifinals at the Hardcourt Super Nationals in Kalamazoo, Mich., and is currently No. 26 in the 18s, where his goal is to break into the top 15 by the end of the 2002 season and top five by 2003. Jamil, who turns 17 in June, is currently the No. 9-ranked open player in Southern California.

Al-Agba’s mother, Barbara, who grew up as a national-caliber figure skater in Tacoma, and father, Saad, a pediatrician in Silverdale, produced four children, each of whom are high achievers: Niran, 27, is a former world-class baton twirler who’s doing her residency in pediatrics and plans to join her father’s office in Silverdale; Tariq, 25, is heavily into body-building and involved in developing conditioning programs for his brothers and Jacobsen’s junior players at BT∾ Laith, 21, a former state tennis champion from Olympic High, is a senior at Purdue where he’s currently playing No. 5 singles and No. 2 doubles.

Jamil and Barbara have been living in California since September of 1997. His father usually flies to California every other weekend. During holidays, the family gathers in Los Angeles. For Christmas, they flew into Los Angeles and drove over to Phoenix to watch Jamil compete in the USTA’s Winter Super Nationals.

The Al-Agbas have obviously invested a lot of time and money in Jamil’s tennis game.

“All kids want to play pro tennis,” Barbara said. “Jamil had a lot of success early and showed a lot of potential, but he was starting to lose interest when he hit the seventh grade. He needed to go someplace where it would be tennis, tennis, tennis.”

A move to Southern California, which offered better weather, better competition and a variety of top-level coaches, was the answer.

“We left it up to Jamil,” Barbara said. “We told him if he didn’t like it, it’ll be back to Washington, get back in school, play high school tennis and do what you do growing up here. But he really liked it and became more intensely involved in the game.”

Jamil originally attended Weil Tennis Academy, a residential boarding school located in Ojai, Calif., but he was never an academic or live-in student at Weil. Jamil’s enrolled in a home study program and now works with Berger, who coaches at a private court in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

“The first time I saw him he was just tiny little kid,” Berger said. “He was 13 and a half or 14, but he had a really amazing attitude and a lot of self-assurance. The minute he walked out on the court, you could tell he wanted to be a player.

“If the match was close, you could see he was going to win more than his share. One of the things we stress is have ownership of the game and to have vision of the game. Jamil’s been able to grow that vision. He’s constantly thinking about how to improve and he’s very good about finding ways to improve.

“I can’t say enough positive things about him. His biggest hurdle’s going to be when he gets his size is to make sure he has enough firepower.”

Al-Agba’s strength right now, Berger said, “is he really has no weaknesses whatsoever that people can actually pick on. His forehand and backhand are both really good and he can change directions with shots way more than most people. He’s got very good timing. A lot of times, what’s a risk for someone else doesn’t become a risk for him. He can make it every time.”

Mother and son live in Camarillo, Calif., which is centrally located, about 40 miles from Los Angeles and 40 from Weil, where Jamil still practices on clay courts twice a week.

“People ask me if I’m working,” Barbara said. “This is work. You don’t realize how much time I spend on the road.”

The Al-Agbas are not the only tennis parents from Washington and Oregon who have chosen this route.

“If you really want to play serious tennis and get to be the best you can be, it’s hard to do that when you live in the Northwest, where a lot of the tennis is indoors,” Jamil said. “Whenever you compete at the major tournaments, all are outdoors. Plus there’s better players to practice with ... it’s just better tennis. It’s tough on my parents, but they told me if you want to give it all you’ve got, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Al-Agba’s independent study program has worked out well.

“It’s different, but I like it,” said Jamil, a junior in standing. “I think you get the same amount of education, sometimes more. Personally, I think I learn better when I’m more independent.”

The study program is connected with Laurel Springs High School in Ojai.

“The teacher Jamil works with wrote the curriculum for the school,” Barbara said. “He usually has 3-4 hours of school work a day, five days a week. He even has his own chemistry lab at home. It works out really well. This way, you don’t have a school mad at you all the time. Olympic was great, but every time we’d take Laith out to go to a tournament, it was like, ‘You’re leaving again.’”

He meets with his teacher once or twice a week to go over his assignments.

“I have to stay on him,” Barbara said. “Like any teenager, he needs deadlines.”

Jamil spends most of his waking hours playing tennis and people in high places have started to take notice. He’s now being invited to United States Tennis Association elite camps.

He’s been playing mostly men’s open tournaments and national junior events, but Berger said Jamil will play a few starting-level pro events on the Futures Tour in Florida and Northern California.

Prior to coming home last month, Al-Agba reached the finals of the Irvine Open Tennis Championships in Irvine, Calif. He beat UC Irvine’s former No. 1 Oliver Schisser from Australia 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), No. 7 seed Ross Duncan from New York 6-3, 6-4 and California teen Patrick Buchanan, who’s No. 40 nationally in 18s and just signed a national letter of intent with Notre Dame, 7-6 (7-6), 6-3. That put him into the finals, where he lost 7-6 (7-6), 6-3 to Adriano Boccacio of Rome.

The next major tournament for Al-Agba will be the Super Easter Bowl Spring Nationals, April 4-12 in Palm Springs, Calif.

Jamil has never lost sight of his long-range goal of playing professional tennis.

“I want to go for it and see if I can do it,” Jamil said. “If not, I’d like to get a full scholarship to someplace like Stanford or Pepperdine, get a good education and move on.”

The current crop of young U.S. tennis players having success on the ATP tour — led by No. 9-ranked Andy Roddick, No. 64 Taylor Dent and No. 89 Mardy Fish — didn’t play collegiately.

“If Jamil keeps progressing with his game, I definitely see him turning pro at 18 and staying out there,” Berger said. “That’s something he’s striving for and I think he can do it.”

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