Tennis Starts with Love

WeshouldallhateTaylorDentbecause we should all be Taylor Dent: young, attractive, wealthy, a professional tennis player touring the best parts of the world. The 24-year-old Newport Beach native, currently ranked 32nd in the world, has won four professional tennis single titles and earned nearly $1.7 million. For hitting a ball over a net.

This isn't a story about Taylor Dent—but here's Taylor Dent, which is just one more reason we should hate Taylor Dent: because Taylor Dent gets top billing even when the story isn't about him.

This is a story about Kevin Kim, also a local professional tennis player. But unlike Dent, Kim, who was raised in Fullerton, hasn't made millions and wasn't born into luxury with a pedigree. Dent's dad was a successful Australian pro tennis player who took the money and left; Kim's dad came to America because he was a translator in the South Korean army and needed to learn English.

And unlike Dent, who has enjoyed little but success since turning pro in 1998, Kim has struggled since going pro in 1997. For years, he languished in the minor leagues of professional tennis, bouncing like a dead ball in the world rankings between 250 and 120. Instead of Wimbledon, Paris and Monte Carlo, he was playing in places such as Joplin, Missouri; Champaign, Illinois; and Dallas.

“I thought I'd be a little more successful by this time,” says Kim, who left UCLA after his freshman year. “After playing professionally for seven years I wish I were ranked higher.”

It never happens, but this may be his year, though so far . . . it hasn't happened. As of press time, Kim's world ranking was 65th, highest in his career by far. He's made $80,000 in the first two months of 2005. He advanced to the third round of the first Grand Slam event of the year, the Australian Open, receiving a nice stipend of $35,000. And he nearly upset Germany's Tommy Haas—ranked 15th—at a tournament in Memphis.

He's playing the best tennis of his life.

“I don't know what it is, maybe I'm just getting smarter or maturing later,” Kim says. Just a year ago, he was mulling going back to school and studying economics or computer science. “But I've never felt more confident. And that's what you need to win.”

You also just need to win; Kim knows his window of opportunity is closing fast. Tennis is increasingly becoming a young person's game. The big studs on the men's tour—Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt—are all under 25. The days of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe playing well into their 30s are long gone—if you overlook the freak of nature that is Andre Agassi. And history is no kinder. Fellow OC product Michael Chang won 34 times on the professional tour, but only once after the age of 27. Pete Sampras won 56 times before the age of 27, eight times after and only once after he turned 30.

“It's definitely a young man's game, and it's getting younger all the time,” says Kim, who is 27. “But you never really know. A few years back, an Italian player had the best year of his career at the age of 30. So who knows what can happen? A year ago, I was contemplating going back to school. Now I'm playing better than ever.”

If Kim's career ends tomorrow—or after he plays Dent and defending champ Roger Federer at Indian Wells next weekend—no one will be crying, not even Kim. Sure, the potential he showed as a teen—competing in the U.S. Open at age 16—hasn't been realized. But he's made $510,000 in seven years, visited almost every continent and earned his living by playing a game. It may be high pressure and high stakes—but it's still a game.

“I've been discouraged from time to time after struggling for so long,” Kim admits. “But then I'll call a friend back home, and they tell me stay out there, keep doing what you're doing. I get to travel the world, work in the sunshine and stay active. I think it's a lot better than being in an office. I have no regrets. I can always go back to college.”

Being Kevin Kim looks better all the time: in his last event before heading to Southern California this week, the Tennis Channel Open in Scottsdale, he was seeded fifth. He easily beat his first-round opponent but lost in the second round. Too bad; had Kim won, he could have played the fourth seed: Taylor Dent. Except Dent got blind-sided in the first round by Wayne Arthurs, a 33-year-old—or was it 3,300?—ranked 99th in the world.

Suddenly, being 27 and ranked 65 doesn't look too shabby.


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