'Tennis isn't waiting' for former junior champ
Phillip King, a former two-time U.S. junior champ, is finding life hard as a pro on the ATP Tour. Bonnie DeSimone explains.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- You have to be an optimist to do what Phillip King is doing, so when he says "I think things are looking bright," it's hard not to take him at his word.
At 18, King was a two-time reigning U.S. junior champion, weighing whether or not he had enough game to turn pro. Now, at 25, he is No. 360 in the world, weighing whether he has enough game to persevere.
In between, King earned a Duke University degree, double majoring in computer science and political science. He was a four-time All-American and the 2002 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. His resumé would be the envy of many young men, but there are times where his mind drifts back to the fork in his road.
"It's frustrating knowing I didn't give myself that chance to at least try to be just as good, or better," King said. "And now I'm catching up.
"I lost four years of pro tennis. I didn't lose four years of my life. I really want to clarify that. It's just very difficult to progress if you're spending time with guys who are not going to do the same thing as you are."
In his first-round loss, King was up 4-1 in the first set on Korea's 54th-ranked Hyung-Taik Lee but lost that set in a tiebreak and saw the match slip away as so many have over the last two-plus years. He won a tournament as an amateur in the summer of 2002, when he was moonlighting on the U.S. Tennis Association pro circuit. He has reached the semifinals of two Challenger events, a step down from the ATP.
"My age is a reality," he said. "Tennis isn't waiting for me."
The men's ranks are deeper and stronger than they were when he departed for Duke, King said. He received limited USTA support the summer he turned pro, but said he's not surprised the organization doesn't invest a lot in its college grads.
"If you look at the top 100, there's only one or two guys at most who finished college," he said. "So you're looking at a two percent chance. Any business sense, you don't throw money at something that's only going to work two percent of the time."
King's choice seems more poignant in retrospect as he watches the youngest of his four siblings, 17-year-old Vania, make her way up the ladder on the women's tour. Phillip said his sister is much more mature mentally and physically than he was at that age and supported her decision to eschew a college scholarship. He admitted that he was the family guinea pig, in a way.
"It helps to understand the environment," he said. "I didn't know, and nobody in my family played, and they had nothing to do with athletics. It's pretty hard to jump in the water when you don't know how the currents are going to go."
King still lives in his hometown of Long Beach and is once again working with former U.S. Tennis Association developmental coach Eliot Teltscher, his coach from age 12 to 17. Not surprisingly, Teltscher takes a very long view of the protégé he also considers a friend.
"You won't know if he made the right or wrong decision for 10 or 15 years," Teltscher said. "He could become president of Motorola.
"I felt he would have been a good, solid pro player. He always had a great backhand and a legitimate serve. He serves bigger than people think. And he's very cardio-fit. He can go forever."
Where King fell behind in college was in strength and level of competition. He hired a physical trainer in the offseason and has added seven or eight pounds to his wiry 5-foot-9, 145-pound frame. Now Teltscher wants him to build up mental muscle and is encouraging him to consult with a sports psychologist.
"He's got a chance at it," Teltscher said. "But he's not going to be out there playing $10,000 tournaments when he's 30."
King said he'll go all-out this year and evaluate whether he should continue at the end of the season.
Killer Bs: Benjamin Becker -- a.k.a. No Relation To Boris -- has spent years patiently explaining the non-story of his nonexistent family connection to the German icon. But the two were probably fated to intertwine the moment Benjamin picked up a racket at age 9, the day after Boris beat Ivan Lendl in the 1991 Australian Open final.
A funny thing has happened in the last year. Benjamin Becker, an NCAA singles champion who left Baylor University just a few credits shy of a degree, is now a top-50 player. (Unlike King, he was a late bloomer who actually benefited by maturing in college.) Benjamin's recent selection for Germany's Davis Cup team in the first round against Croatia finally put him on a collision course with Boris as the two met for the first time in the home locker room.
This week, Benjamin became the first pro to sport Boris Becker's new "BB" line of clothing, made by Voelkl, the German tennis equipment and apparel manufacturer in which Boris has purchased a 50 percent stake. No details were released on Benjamin's pending multiyear deal. "It's not official until May," Benjamin said after defeating Marat Safin in the San Jose quarterfinals to reach his second ATP semi in a month's time. "His management talked to my management and left me out of it. It's a fun idea."
But won't it heighten the name-game confusion?
B. Becker smiled. "I can't get away from it anyway," he said.
Not an empty threat: Andy Roddick on an early admonition from Jimmy Connors after their first practice sessions together: "He said, 'If I'm watching you on TV and you aren't applying these things, I might lose it.'"
Deadlines, deadlines: Coach Brad Gilbert on how Fleet Street views Andy Murray: "The biggest thing I've seen from the English press is [smacks hands together] the time frame. When, exactly, is it going to happen? They want to know the time, date and place, exactly, when the major's going to come. And I don't have those answers. I know Andy Murray is becoming a lot better tennis player. Right now, we're thinking about getting him into single digits in the rankings. You take small steps. Over there, they want to know time frame. My wife wants to know [the] time frame too, when I'm going to be home sometimes. It's not that easy."
Tower of power: Mardy Fish, on dealing with the angle of serve from 6-foot-10 Croatian Ivo Karlovic: "The only thing worse than his serve would be him as a lefty."
Bonnie DeSimone is freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.
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