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Thursday, February 19, 2004



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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dennis Lajola won the consolation championship yesterday at the USTA National Junior Open.



Aiea’s Lajola
beats his hero


The thing about being young is that milestones seem to come up every other day.

Aiea tennis prodigy Dennis Lajola hurdled another obstacle on his chase to tennis success yesterday, beating Kallim J. Stewart of Bloomington, Ind., in the consolation semifinals of the USTA National Junior Open at Central Oahu Regional Park.

Lajola, who turned 15 this month, went on to win the consolation championship by beating Jonathan Tragardh 6-3, 6-2 after his three-hour affair with Stewart.

Instead of looking across the net at a bigger and more experienced opponent, Lajola may as well have been looking across the net at himself. Stewart, 16, was ranked No. 2 in the nation in his age group when he was 14 years old and Lajola was No. 21 on that list, a time that seems ages ago to Lajola followers.

But Lajola remembers that time well. It was when his aspirations more closely resembled those of the everyday fan marveling at Barry Bonds or Peyton Manning.

"I remember when Stewart was No. 2 as a 14-year old," Dado Lajola, Dennis's father and coach, said. "I remember before reaching this level was even a possibility Dennis and I would think, 'Wouldn't it be great to be where he is someday, to be as good as he is?' Now he beat him, that makes this a big win for Dennis."

So Dennis Lajola grew up a little bit yesterday, but he grows up a little bit more every day.

Dado Lajola is still his son's primary coach, at least that is what those who are paid to make Dennis Lajola great say. Rick Sell, who counts Monica Seles as a former student and has been coaching Dennis Lajola for a year now, clearly steps aside whenever a conflict arises regarding his charge's development.

"(Dado Lajola) may know a lot more than me in certain areas and vice versa," Sell said about the man who gave genes and so much more to the teen-ager. "Nick Bollettieri (who is one of the world's best teachers of the game) was never a great tennis player."

But it is easy for a coach to use 'father knows best' as a philosophy when the thing that father knows best is how to stay out of the way.

"Every time he makes a decision with Dennis, from scheduling to strategy, I will always agree," Dado Lajola said. "There is not even a 0.01 percent chance I will disagree with him. At this point, I can't give Dennis anything except to be there to support him."

Lajola needed that support against Stewart yesterday, glancing in Dado Lajola's direction nine times between serves at one point. Even with the stands filling up and spectators spilling over to behind the mesh fence on court four, Dennis Lajola looked to his father. He wasn't looking for advice. He knows what he is doing even when forced to choose between a sports drink and water between games, but he seeks out his father anyway.

It is something all parties involved wish he could stop.

"I usually do that wherever I am. It is something I have to work on," Dennis Lajola said. "But this was different. With everyone cheering for me, it gives me a lot of confidence."

Even if Sell and Dado Lajola can break the phenom of his quirk, Dado Lajola will always be there if it ever comes back. He would prefer the boy keep his concentration on the court, but says he knows the value of it wandering to a good place instead of the bad place in the brain where doubt resides.

"That's the one thing I keep telling him, to try not to look on my side," Dado Lajola said. "He doesn't need to because I will always be there. On the mainland you see some parents leave after their kids start losing, he doesn't have to worry about that. I will always be there."

Dado Lajola has been there for his son a lot less than he used to be. He is always just a phone call away, but sent Dennis away to learn at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida alone earlier this year and will say goodbye to his son again after this tournament, when Sell takes Dennis to Costa Rica for a tournament.

After thrilling the crowd with a wide array of power shots yesterday, Dennis Lajola impressed a lot more than the weekend hackers who can keep track of a match without a scoreboard. He impressed a man who walked in his shoes only a few years before.

"He has a good all-around game with a lot of potential," Stewart said. "Living up to the potential is not easy, I wish him the best of luck in the future."

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