By Krystle Nicole Russin
As I took notes, Luke Jensen, the second half of the French Open winning ’93 doubles team, waited to board another plane. In his busy life, he travels during summers meeting potential college tennis recruits, keeps up with his role as the Syracuse University tennis coach, and plays the exhibition matches every so often. Yesterday, he was in Vancouver for a tennis clinic.
Today, he joined me in Sacramento, first chatting on the way to the airport over bad-quality peanut snacks. You know, the kind that make you feel ripped off, but you’re hungry for protein so you eat them and secretly like them, despite realizing the factory they came from was probably cockroach infested.
“Sometimes the days are pretty long. You start in the morning and go until night. Vancouver is one of the most amazing tennis destinations. It’s got these unbelievable clubs on the water. It really is great,” he said.
As a player, he explained, one must always drive himself to “an area of my game where I’d like to improve and be unique.” For example, Jensen and I share something odd in common: we are both ambidextrous. As a little kid, I was left-handed in everything but wrote with my right hand. To impress others, I practiced my name in cursive with a fuzzy Beluga whale-topped pencil until I learned how to write left-handed (Somehow, it didn’t make a difference with my two left dancing feet). Jensen explained that on court, learning to play with both strong hands follows the same suit.
“You have to have the mental approach to do it. You want to learn with your right or left hand? The same with tennis. I teach all my players to use the same thing. Murphy [his brother] has the ability to hit overheads and serves. It’s a neat challenge.”
Right now, “My job now is to get more players for the pro circuit for the future, whereas the current players just finished their finals this week. All of them are playing down [at a tournament] in Pennsylvania.”
Jensen talked about the lack of ambition found today.
“The players I recruit — so many of them don’t think they can be pros so they quit on their dreams. If they’re 16 or 17 and ranked 30th in the nation, they put an expiration date on their tennis. They stop practicing, gain 15 pounds. If you want to be a pro, you have to work harder. Rafael Nadal is still working on his game. You have to stay ahead of the curve. In the 14-and-under category, I was ranked 94th in the nation. I had no indication I was gonna be a pro tennis player, but that’s what I wanted to do. That’s all I thought about. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it, I just knew I wanted to be No. 1 in the world. I don’t see that out there a lot.
“If you’re 16 or 17 years old, you need to go to college. Clearly, if you’re not in the Top 100 in the world, you aren’t making money. Anyone outside the Top 100? They’re not making money. They make expenses. I see so many of these top players turning pro and they have no business turning pro. They can’t do like Venus Williams did at 17 years old, going to the US Open and playing the finals. Those people are beyond off-the-chart talented.”
Many players also overlook the non-sports benefits that college holds. “There are so many life lessons in there too. Being a complete person. The social experience! Dealing with pressures in the classroom and pressures from your peers. It’s an amazing time in your life.
“On my team, I have the highest GPA of any team in the athletic department. I’ve got people in pre-law, pre-med and business. What’s going to happen if they don’t become professional tennis players? Where do they go if they don’t have a backup plan? If you are actually winning on the tour, on the main WTA Tour against ranked players and Melanie Oudin is a good example, she’s in the Top 100 right now. She could’ve lost that match at Wimbledon. That’s a big risk. There’s timing involved. A lot of things go into it. Other players are just as talented, but some people make their break and other people don’t.”
Jensen said the sport has changed since his doubles days.
“The passway is different. When I played, there were people out there who focused solely on doubles and that was the entire draw, to have the best doubles players in the world. Now some of the elite teams in the world do play, but the other half of the draw is singles players who don’t put in the same amount of time for doubles. The game is definitely bigger and stronger. It has never been played at a higher level.
“The speed has definitely picked up. There are better athletes and…the technology. But if you stay with the game, [Jimmy] Connors is a good example of how he was able to pick up with the pace and the strength. This game is evolving all the time, but it’s also still rooted in how you play under pressure. You run or you run away from it. Can you put the ball where it needs to be when it counts?
“So, the champions with that mindset — it doesn’t matter when it is — those fundamental principles will always be the same because the court and dynamics will stay the same. The athletes will get better, but when you talk about competition? Justine Henin. Kim Clijsters. It’s amazing to come back and be at that level. Pete Sampras can come back and play any good match, but to do it in two solid weeks under the rigorous physical strain?”
As with every profile piece I write, I asked basic facts like his age. Jensen told me he was a hopeless old maid.
“I turn 44 next month. I’m doing nothing. My back hurts. My knees hurt. I’ll probably have a little cake, absolutely, but it’s going to be real low key.
“I am single. The opportunity hasn’t really come about. It hasn’t been right. I was on the tour so long, so focused on that up in Syracuse. You just get busy and everything. You’re engrossed in your career. You’re gonna have to really make time for a social life. How much time do you want to commit to it? That’s a whole ‘nother process.”
See, that’s another thing shared amongst myself and the two Jensens: we are all pathetically single spinsters for life. Luke and I decided at this moment to form a club where we would all split time wearing the same pair of jeans. Somehow, the pants would fit both a 32-inch hipped little girl and three tall, muscular pro tennis dudes of varying waist sizes. We would decorate the pants with eight pounds o’ Barbie glitter and co-pen an awesomely girl-powered chick lit novel about tennis involved in our single lives. We knew in a millisecond Murphy would be up for it, but we needed a fourth member and Jensen thought John McEnroe would find the idea too sissy. The search for a fourth person was now on.
In all seriousness, admittedly, half of what we joke about is true. I am already 22 and despite plenty of prospective offers I have toyed with, the last name DiCaprio has yet to show up on my caller ID. Grrrr. Jensen, like his brother Murphy, takes life at ease and suggests I do so. He will meet the dream woman he wants when he is ready for her. Come to think of it, he doesn’t know who she is. His mind draws a blank. I tried talking him up to meet Playboy babes hiding somewhere in upstate New York. On the contrary, he described needing a woman who can handle an outdoorsy lifestyle.
“Girls are all right with me! I probably do a lot of fitness training. I’m really into that outdoors stuff, getting out and hiking and fishing. In Syracuse, there is so much to do. It’s like an outdoor paradise. I live basically on a farm across the street from another farm that has longhorn cattle and alpacas. It’s crazy.”
A city girl is out of the question then. “If you’re coming from the city, everything’s boring, unless you go to Paris, LA or Chicago. Syracuse has a very slow pace.”
He wants a girl who can handle his work ethic. He is passionate.
“My thing right now, my obsession is trying to contribute to helping bring back American tennis in the same way the USTA and Patrick McEnroe are. You’ve got to first have a plan. I have a plan that is not something I invented or a system that I came up with. It’s something my family used to be professional tennis players. It just starts with a mindset. People are turning pro based on what potential they have, not based on reality.”
He told of the experience very few men have shared: winning a Grand Slam.
“For 99 percent of us, to play pro tennis we had to claw and climb our way up. We didn’t have the talent to just do it, land at that top of the mountain. There’s a lot of hard work, but some people could bypass that with extreme talent.”
Jensen said too many women disappear from tennis.
“There are so many players who just fall off the map. And the guys, you don’t just see guys burning out and taking off. Guys slip a little bit, but it’s the same core of guys with new guys sprinkled in once in a while.
“My formula is just like in the classroom — if your grades and test scores show you can’t be a doctor, you can’t be in medical school. I’m not saying you can’t develop over the next four years. I’m taking players who still want to be pros and turning them into pros over the four-year life span while they’re going to get their college degrees.
“What do we have, five players in the Top 100 in the world? We only have five players? With all of our money and resources and coaching in the country and all we can muster up is five? Something’s falling apart! The more people like Patrick [McEnroe] or myself who are trying to develop players at that level, the better they’re going to be!”
We got talking about the meaning of friendship beyond bracelets. He told me a few things at first about his friends way back when. They would get together often. Not so much anymore, but they try. I talked about how my once-huge circle of friends years and years ago now whittled down to a small, weird mix of fun people who don’t work often, middle-aged print journalists, jocks, guys I formerly dated/want to date/sometimes still semi-date-but-call-my-“friends” and really, really old people like a Manhattan neighbor in her 80s. We get together to eat fruit salad and complain about our physical health ailments.
“I am very fortunate to know people, especially in tennis, but I think what happens is my friends now have careers and families,” he said, “so it’s not the same friendship.” In other words, they don’t hang out as often. They have changed. Life goes on sometimes. “You fit it in when you can. You make a phone call when you can.”
I had to ask him about his French Open win in the ’90s. HAD TO. Particularly because I will never know what it feels like and each person I meet who has won a Grand Slam has a different take on it.
“It’s the most amazing achievement I can possibly think of. It’s not just winning a Slam but winning a Slam with your brother. It has so much more meaning and depth because of the journey from a small town in Michigan with no indoor courts, playing seasonal tennis, being a late starter. It’s to understand how hard that really was. At 44 years old, it still blows my mind we were able to accomplish it.”
Somehow, this led to a crazy discussion about vegetarianism, traveling, being unaware of people’s sexual orientations nowadays solely based on stereotypes — when asking someone out, male or female, one must clarify whether it is for a date, friendship or something in between — once again Melanie Oudin’s overall awesomeness for her age, the mind games in tennis one overcomes —
the sad state of incredible tennis stars doubting themselves on court when they shouldn’t — and the fact that his brother co-wrote a few songs on my double disc CD out this summer. We got so wrapped in conversation that we didn’t hear the airline’s boarding announcement until Jensen was nearly poked in the eye by someone’s luggage.
“They’re boarding this plane now,” he said. He apologized a bit. “I don’t think my interview is doing any justice. Murphy’s the comedian.” Actually, he was pretty hilarious. By the time you read this, he will have flown to Florida, meeting another potential collegiate tennis player and will finally be off to Syracuse again, where we will take it easy for five minutes.
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