Tennis Prose



Jimmy Arias, the mismanaged boy wonder?

I ran into the great Jimmy Arias at the USTA National Campus in Orlando yesterday after playing World Team Tennis national qualifiers for our 4.5 team from NJ, and Jimmy walked by, on site for his Tennis Channel broadcast of the Ohio State vs Florida State womens tennis match.

“What are you doing here,” Jimmy asked. Just like what he said another time we bumped into each other at Laurel Oak where I was playing a league match and he was just finishing a hitting session with a top junior Ty or Micah Braswell.

About a month ago I had the chance to hit with an old timer from Buffalo named Tom Lapenna, who knows Jimmy since he was 9. He told me a lot of stories about how good Jimmy was a kid. At age 10-11 he would hang around the adult players who he could beat, despite his small stature, that’s how talented and powerful he was. They’d go out to eat sometimes, a big group of over a dozen and the kid was so sharp he would actually dominate the conversations. “Everybody loved Jimmy,” Tom recalls fondly. Strangers would be in wonder, how could a kid, A KID, dominate grown men in conversations?

Then at 12 Jimmy was arranged to play an exo with Rod Laver in Buffalo. This was in 1976. Laver was 38, like Federer right now.

Jimmy somehow managed to get the best of Laver for a while 2-love. After that, Laver looked at Jimmy and said, “Kid, you’re not getting another game.” In the end, Laver finally did prevail, 7-5. Arias said he was “unbelievable” that night and did not reach that level of fine play for five years.

Arias relocated to Bollettieri’s Academy on Longboat Key at 13. At 16 he beat top 20 ATP veteran Eddie Dibbs in an exhibition. But the word was Bollettieri mismanaged the Arias game, by trying to turn him into a top spinner far behind the baseline, like a new Borg Vilas. Doing endless hours of drills. But Jimmy had his own identity and game and a decent backhand with touch. He was good enough to be his own player – not an imitation.

He turned pro upon Bollettieri’s insistence. The first year on the ATP Tour was a “miserable” experience. Arias broke into the top 100 but he was not embraced by the other older players. One player named Francisco Gonzalez bullied Arias off a practice court to hit with Ferdie Taygan. In 1982, Arias made the finals of Washington and lost to Ivan Lendl. In 1983, Arias made the semifinals at US Open and lost to Lendl again. This was when Lendl was a choke artist. A bad call went against Arias which Jimmy felt turned the match and cost him a final showdown with Connors. Lendl choked the final to Connors 63 67 75 60.

After US Open, Arias played in Palermo, Italy, for a $20,000 guarantee. He got mono and strep throat. He didn’t play for three months. When he finally felt strong enough to hit the court he jumped right into a practice set with Lapenna and lost it.

The career of Arias went downhill from there. He won a total of five ATP titles in 1982 and 1983, plus a French Open mixed doubles major with Andrea Jaeger. Overall, a good solid career. but not quite the stuff of legend like he himself and some others expected.

The questions remain. Was the 12 year old prodigy misguided and miscoached by Bollettieri? Was the then uproven Bollettieri really truly worthy of handling and developing such a rare, one in a million talent as young Arias?

Today Arias is the best tennis commentator on TV for Tennis Channel. He’s also now the head of player development at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.

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  • catherine · March 7, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    Can we comment on the top stream now ? This is getting a bit unwieldy.

    I’ve just posted Bianca has w/d from IW.

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