New racket for former AHS star | AspenTimes.com

New racket for former AHS star

Nate Peterson

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

A breakthrough? No, Laura Gordon said it wasn’t that. The former Aspen High tennis star couldn’t find the right word to describe her improbable jump from the No. 6 singles spot to No. 1 this spring at UCLA. She also starred at No. 1 doubles, and, as team captain, led the Bruins to the round of 16 at the NCAA Championships. In honor of her standout season, she won the annual Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Cissie Leary Sportsmanship Award for a player who has displayed exemplary leadership.But a breakthrough? On paper, maybe. But, from her own perspective, Gordon said her senior season wasn’t an overnight success story.It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and determination. It was the result of a year-long training regimen, which included spending summers in Aspen training with a dream coach and one of the game’s legends.If there was one epiphany, Gordon said, it was the take-nothing-for-granted attitude she developed after she broke her foot last fall.When she returned to the court in January, she played as if every match were her last.”It was crazy – I don’t even know how it happened,” said Gordon, who finished 25-11 in singles and 17-5 in doubles with partner Riza Zalameda. “At my first tournament I beat some good players. From there, I just gained so much confidence. I didn’t have expectations on the court. My coaches had expectations for me to be a leader and all that, but I just went out and played so free. I enjoyed every match so much.”It’s an attitude that Gordon was missing nearly five years ago when she first walked on at UCLA.

She admits that her athletic gifts overshadowed the mental fortitude she lacked as a junior player. She won a singles title as a sophomore at Aspen High, and was always the Skiers’ best player.With her impressive grades, a number of Ivy League schools recruited her. She nearly accepted a full scholarship to Harvard before a visit to UCLA convinced her to head west.That decision is one of the best she ever made, Gordon said. She faced the best college tennis players in the country in the Pacific 10 – something she wouldn’t have encountered in Massachusetts. The transition from the junior ranks to the college game wasn’t seamless, however. She earned the offer of a full athletic scholarship after going 13-6 in No. 2 doubles as a freshman. Playing singles, though, tested her resolve. She finished her first season 16-21, primarily at No. 4 and No. 5.To fix the holes in her game, Gordon returned to Aspen to train with her longtime coach, Clare Evert – and Clare’s older sister, Chris. Gordon was 8 when she first took a lesson from Clare during a summer vacation in Aspen. In high school, she attended the Evert Academy in Florida, which Chris – who won 18 Grand Slams – founded. In between, Clare became her full-time coach.Gordon said that coaching undoubtedly helped her reach her goal of becoming a Division I athlete. To become a successful college player, however, she had to grow as an individual.”I needed to grow up.” she said. “I was a little bit of a spitfire when I was in high school, I’m not going to lie. I had a little attitude. The main thing for me was mental. Just getting confidence that I could play against top players.”

Chris Evert said the Gordon of five years ago is much different than the player she knows now. “In the last two years, I’ve seen her come a long way mentally,” Chris said. “Five years ago, she’d throw her racket in practice. I would look at her and just laugh. I’d tell her, ‘This is practice. This is not the place to get really frustrated.’ … I think she finally realized that what she does in practice will translate to what she does in matches. There’s no way that you can be a bad practice player and upset and have a bad temper, then get into a match and be a cool cucumber. A lot of it was just growing up.”There were also lessons to be learned from her college coach, Stella Sampras Webber. Gordon credits the former UCLA star- and older sister of another tennis legend – with helping her channel her energy on the court and become a leader. She credits Chris – the winningest pro in tennis history when she retired – for pushing her in practice, and helping her develop a strong work ethic. More than anyone, however, Gordon credits Clare. After nearly 16 years, the relationship extends beyond just player and coach.”She has really just been my mentor through everything,” Gordon said. “I can’t really pinpoint the one thing that she’s done for me, because she’s done everything for me. Really helping me mentally, I guess. Teaching me skills just to get through four years of college tennis is, I guess, which is a feat for me. Really, on the court, off the court, she’s done everything for me.”Gordon knows that she’s been lucky. Playing tennis with Chris and Clare Evert would be a dream for most. For her, it’s an everyday summer occurrence. She doesn’t downplay the impact the two have had on her – both on the court and off.”Really, just working with both of them is just such an honor for me,” she said. “They’ve helped me so much and I owe so much of my success to both of them. It’s hard, because I’m so close with them that I don’t think of Chrissy as a Grand Slam winner. But I love that I have that relationship with them and that they can help me and kick my butt on the court.”As for the next step, now that her career as a Bruin is officially over?

Gordon said she took about a month after nationals to relax before she came to a realization. The break was nice, but she missed tennis. No, it was more than that. She needed competition – not just a few sessions hitting the ball around each week.”I started training again, because I felt like being done with college tennis shouldn’t make me have to stop playing tennis,” she said. She now plans to test the waters as a pro while she finishes her history degree and works as an assistant for the Bruins’ tennis team. She’ll have to start near the bottom playing singles and doubles in satellite tournaments to try to earn more points. Considering the leaps she made at UCLA, Gordon didn’t rule out the possibility of breaking into the pro tour one day. She definitely has the coaches to help get her there.”I plan on just taking it one day at a time,” Gordon said. “Just seeing where I can go. I’d love to play in some big tournaments some day.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com