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Lori McNeil vaults from public parks player to tennis heights

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 1987

Worcester, Mass.

For tennis player Lori McNeil, 1986 was her leap year. In the course of just 12 months, she went from 93rd in the world rankings to 14th. Not surprisingly, her peers voted her the Most Improved Player on the women's pro circuit. So what has she done for an encore? Obviously another quantum leap wasn't possible, but she has moved up a few more notches (No. 11 going into last weekend's tour event here). And earlier in the year she did manage one brief stretch of play that rates among the most inspiring in recent memory.

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It came where nobody could miss it, in the final rounds of the US Open in New York, and served to introduce McNeil to a world at large that probably wasn't previously aware of her abilities.

In the quarterfinals, she accomplished what no other player had ever done at the US championship - she prevented Chris Evert from advancing to the semis with a stunning 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory. Then in practically a repeat performance, she took top-seeded Steffi Graf to three sets to indirectly prompt a controversy at CBS. When the network's evening newscast was delayed to show the end of the match, anchorman Dan Rather bolted from the set in a fit of pique.

Looking back on her landmark victory over Evert, McNeil graciously observes, ``I had nothing to lose and she seemed a little flat that day. Then, too, she was the winningest woman at the US Open at the time, and a six-time champion. I thought she might feel more pressure in the quarterfinals than if she'd reached the final. All these things had an effect.''

The outcome stirred mixed emotions among tennis followers, sadness over the end of Evert's streak, but gladness to see a fresh face emerge.

Part of what made this effort and her subsequent valiant loss so inspirational was the conviction and poise they embodied. Instead of retreating into a conservative shell, McNeil put everything on the line with a bold attacking style. She relentlessly rushed the net against both superstars, coming in 90 times against Evert and 93 times against Graf.

``I was playing well and felt if I made up my mind to do something on the court, that would give me confidence,'' she recalls. Her determination to keep pressing Graf was an eye-opener to other players. It helped exposed a chink in the young West German's armor, and showed that Steffi's fierce forehand could be partly neutralized by decreasing her setup time.

Serve-and-volley is McNeil's game. She has stuck with it through thick and the occasional, but inevitable thin.

A classic example of the latter occurred at the Australian Open last January. ``Hana Mandlikova beat me love and love [6-0, 6-0], which was pretty amazing,'' she says. ``She played well, but that kind of blows your mind. She was on and I was a little indecisive. What I learned is that if you're in a situation like that, you have to change things, create things.''

The accumulated lessons of several seasons on the tour have begun to pay off for this 23-year-old Texan, who delayed her pro debut while attending Oklahoma State University for two years. She won the Big Eight Conference singles crown in 1983 as a sophomore.

College ``helped me as a person,'' she says, but did little to hone a tennis game crying for more competition. Since turning pro was a long-held dream, she had no qualms about leaving school, figuring she could complete her marketing and communications studies later.

McNeil, whose father, Charlie, once played defensive back for pro football's San Diego Chargers, was introduced to tennis 14 years ago when her mother, Dorothy, took up the game in Houston.

Lori tagged along and soon found herself one of the star pupils of the MacGregor Park youth program, which was a prime example of what can happen when city kids are given good organization and good coaching.

PBS television gave us ``The MacNeil-Lehrer Report,'' MacGregor Park something that might be called the McNeil-Garrison rapport. Lori's best friend and main doubles partner is Zina Garrison, another MacGregor product who has been the more prominent of the two, at least until the last year or so. They travel together and share the same coaches, John Wilkerson, their long-time Houston mentor, and Willis Thomas of Washington, D.C.