POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 28, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:33 a.m. HST, Apr 28, 2011
The last time University of Hawaii senior Dennis Lajola lost a tennis tournament in Hawaii he was 12. The last time he lost a Western Athletic Conference Championship was never.
The brightest light in local tennis for the past decade could be playing his final collegiate matches this weekend as the Rainbows make a run at their fourth consecutive WAC title and NCAA berth. Before Lajola came, there were none.
He nearly did not come home to Manoa. In 2003, he helped the U.S. defend its World Junior Championship. Lajola left his Aiea home soon after to see the tennis world and attend academies on the mainland. He reached the semifinals at the 2005 USTA National Championships and the round of 16 at the 2006 Australian Open Juniors. Just before enrolling at UH, Lajola won the 2007 Honolulu Futures, a USTA Pro Circuit stop.
His brother Derrick, who played and coached at UH, sat him down in between.
WAC TENNIS TOURNAMENT» When: Today-Sunday
» Where: Boise, Idaho
» Women: First round today — No. 6 seed Hawaii (8-12) vs. No. 3 Nevada (11-9), 8 a.m.; semifinals tomorrow, final Saturday.
» Men: First round tomorrow — No. 5 seed Hawaii (6-12) vs. No. 4 Boise State (15-14), 11 a.m.; winner plays No. 1 Fresno State (14-8) Saturday in noon semifinal; final Sunday.
"I didn't have college in my mind," Dennis Lajola recalls. "In January or February of my senior year, my brother said I wasn't ready enough. He kind of convinced me I needed to mature with my game and (UH) Coach (John) Nelson was a good fit for me. He could develop my game before I just dive right into the pros. It took me about a week or two to realize he was right. Then I was only planning to go to college a year or two. But things happen ... I think they were good.
"I've learned life experiences. Coming to college I think I learned to love the game more. In juniors it was more like a job. I had to go to practice, had to do all these things. Now everything is on my own. I love practicing. I love working out. I love watching tennis."
He has played No. 1 throughout his UH career and, with a national ranking in the low 100s, should be a four-time All-WAC first-team selection. In 2008, he was WAC freshman of the year, following in the footsteps of former Rainbows Andreas Weber and Sascha Heinemann. Those three anchored Hawaii's stunning run to its first WAC title.
The second was even sweeter, coming before a large, loud crowd in Manoa. Hawaii then ground out its first NCAA victory and climbed to 41st in the country, the program's highest ranking.
Last year, Lajola reached a career high of 56th with wins over ranked players from Arizona, California, UCLA and USC. UH three-peated in Fresno.
This weekend, the Rainbows and Wahine are in Boise, Idaho. The women are seeded sixth and open against Nevada today. The men, who have 11 losses to ranked opponents, are seeded fifth and face 55th-ranked Boise State in tomorrow's opening round. If they win, they get top-seeded and 42nd-ranked Fresno State.
"I never look at rankings and seeding," says Nelson, whose other seniors are Word of Life graduate Daniel Llarenas and French national Jeremy Tweedt. "Honestly, I know we have the talent to win it and we're going after it."
That has pretty much been Lajola's mantra since he was little. After 18 years in the game, he insists he loves it more than ever. He is a semester short of his sociology degree, but already has a full schedule planned on the Asian satellite tour when this season is over. Graduation will wait while he lives the dream he first remembers having at age 13.
"That's when USA Tennis kind of discovered me and invited me to all the tournaments in Europe," Lajola says. "Everything really got rolling. A lot of opportunities came up that year. That was the moment that changed my tennis life. I decided to move to the mainland and get my tennis game to where I wanted it to go."
It is a work in progress. Lajola's remarkable will to win remains the same, but at UH he has fine-tuned his forehand and serve and found more focus, on the court and off. At January's Honolulu Challenger, he nearly beat a guy ranked 224th in the world.
Nelson believes he can win at the next level.
"He has become a student of the game," Nelson says. "Problem-solving is what tennis is. It's like chess on wheels and he has become a better chess player."
The Wahine, whose only senior is Natasha Zorec, advanced to the WAC semifinals the past two years and could have their entire team healthy for the first time today. Sophomore Katarina Poljakova, who plays first singles, leads the team at 15-5 and has been ranked as high as 89th.
"We've had brilliance as far as individual performances," coach Jun Hernandez says, "but we haven't really done it as group to beat a ranked team yet."