After spending half his life roaming baselines all over the world, Dennis Lajola is home. There is no place like it, particularly Kailua Racquet Club, where the 45th annual Creative Energy/Blue Moon Mens Night Doubles kicks off its two-week tennis party on Sunday.
Lajola and Ikaika Jobe are going after their fifth championship — fourth together. Kendall Char and Ryan Ideta share the record with six night doubles titles apiece.
Lajola, now a realtor, and Jobe, a lawyer, have won three of the last six KRC finals. They are seeded No. 1 again and anxious to get out of their offices and on the court.
“It’s one of my favorite tournaments, one of the best I have ever played in my career,” Lajola says. “The fans come out and support every player from the very first day. The community supports the tournament. The result is that you get hundreds of tennis fans come out and watch. The atmosphere is electrifying so the players feed off of that when they are playing.”
That atmosphere is unique in Hawaii’s competitive, but relatively laid-back tennis world. Crowds are uncommon at most matches here, with folks preferring to play and not watch.
KRC Night Doubles is the exception. The opportunity to take in high-quality tennis in a cozy and comfortable pau hana atmosphere — with great food and drink steps away — draws a few thousand fans every year.
This is the third stop in Hawaii’s Triple Crown of Tennis. State high school champ Kawika Lam and Hawaii Pacific graduate assistant Nikola Petrov won the Oahu Club Night Doubles, with Lajola and Jobe withdrawing in the semifinals because of an injury. They got well in time to beat two-time KRC champs Michael Maatta and Jan Tribler for the USTA Night Doubles title earlier this month.
Those first two events had $1,000 purses. The pros are playing for $7,500 in Kailua and the team that collects the most Triple Crown points in the series receives a wild card into the doubles main draw at the 2016 Tennis Championships of Maui (formerly Royal Lahaina Challenger). That $50,000 men’s professional tournament is hosted each year by the USTA Hawaii Pacific Section.
Playing in that would also be like coming home for Lajola, who won the 2007 Honolulu Futures championship about the time he started at the University of Hawaii.
By then, he had been part of the USTA’s High Performance Team and represented the U.S. at the Jr. World Youth Cup in Czech Republic and the Jr. Davis Cup in Barcelona. He played all four Junior Grand Slams and was ranked in the top five in every age group in the U.S. Juniors, and 21st internationally.
45TH ANNUAL CREATIVE ENERGY/BLUE MOON NIGHT DOUBLES
>> When: July 26-Aug. 8, from 6 each night
His game blossomed in college, along with the UH tennis team. Lajola was the Rainbows’ third consecutive WAC Freshman of the Year and became the only player in UH history to be named conference player of the year, helping Hawaii to two WAC Championships and its only NCAA tournament win.
At 26, he still considers winning the WAC at home as a sophomore one of the highlights of his tennis life. He also calls capturing the World Youth Cup with Team USA when he was 14 a “blessing” and qualifying for his first ATP Tour Level event “the happiest moment of my tennis career.”
“My childhood dreams of becoming a tennis professional,” Lajola recalls, “started becoming more of a reality.”
He turned pro in 2011 and worked with Michael Chang, Taylor Dent and Eliot Telscher, reaching No. 521 in the ATP rankings in 2012. But injuries and time away from family brought him back two years ago.
He practices sporadically now and only plays the Triple Crown. He misses the adrenaline rush of competition “and pushing my mind and body to the limits every day on and off the tennis court.”
“Traveling around the world was an amazing experience that I enjoyed so much,” he says.
But he came home with no regrets. Lajola saw much more than the world over the past decade and he enjoys his life now. Playing Night Doubles with Jobe, who turns 33 next month, is a joy — especially at KRC.
This year’s tournament starts with 51 teams (the first week qualifies eight for the 16-team main draw). It is littered with generation-gap pairings, including Rick Fried and Andrea Zanonni, Mark Kobayashi and Kailuhia Lam, and Henry Somerville — who won four times with twin brother Jim — playing with his 13-year-old son Andrew.
But the top four seeds are no surprise. Following Lajola and Jobe — who played professionally three years and is now Punahou’s girls coach — are Maatta and Tribler. The third seeds are HPU coach Hendrik Bode and Petrov, and UH’s Marcel Chan and Carter Lam are No. 4.
At Night Doubles, players seem to get better with age.
“I think at this level,” Lajola says, “you never really lose your game. These guys are very talented so anytime they hold a racquet they are capable of playing very well.”