He took pro tennis by storm - now for a driver's license

The ambitions of Jimmy Arias, the youngest player ever to join the men's professional tennis ranks, illustrate that his entry into the record books has not made him all that different from other teen-agers.

When Arias turned professional earlier this year at the age of 16, his goal for 1981 was to break into the top 100 ranked players in the world. Training hard at Nick Bollettieri's famed tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., and competing in a variety of international tournaments, the Grand Island, N.Y., native has achieved that aim by rocketing from anonymous No. 255 to 80 in the latest rankings of the Association of Tennis Professionals' (ATP) computer.

But now Jimmy has a new top priority - this one off the court.

''Getting my driver's license is my new goal,'' the outgoing Arias said recently. ''It's a lot of fun, and getting my license will really help me get around to tournaments. I should get it soon - I promise.''

Arias takes driving lessons with Pam Casale, also a 17-year-old protege of Bollettieri, who turned professional one month after Arias. The two are good friends, providing each other a refuge from the pressures of national attention and the rigid discipline of professional training and competition.

''I'm way ahead of Pam in driving,'' Arias jokes just before taking to an academy court opposite her for a mixed doubles match. ''I'm ready to get my license and she's just learning to back up. All the kids like her here. She hasn't let success go to her head, and that's unusual.''

Arias could easily let success go to his head. The world has become accustomed to teen-agers on the women's tour, but men rarely turn professional until playing college tennis or competing on the amateur circuit during their teen years.

''I think the difference is a combination of two factors,'' Arias said. ''Girls mature faster physically. And there's so much depth in the men's tour. Any of 600 pros can win a tournament on a given day. There're probably only 50 or 100 women who could.''

Confronting these obstacles head on, the rapidly growing, 5 ft. 8 in., 130 -pound Arias has proved that determination and talent can go a long way.

''When I was playing pro tournaments as an amateur it was a lot of fun because there was no pressure,'' the articulate Arias said. ''But when I turned pro, there was a lot more tension. This was my final choice, my decision, saying that tennis is how I'm going to make a living. At first I was playing in Italy and France and had to worry as much about how to get to a tournament as I did playing in it. Then I started playing well at the end of June.''

In June Arias teamed with Andrea Jaeger to win the French Open Mixed Doubles championship, defeating veterans Betty Stove and Frew McMillan, past winners of the Wimbledon mixed doubles crown.

Arias's first major singles upset as a professional came last summer in the final of the Pierremont Oaks Open in Shreveport, La., when he toppled the world's 14th-ranked player, Eliot Teltscher, 7-6 (7-4), 6-7 (11-13), 6-3, in 100 -plus-degree weather.

A few weeks later, just 20 days before his 17th birthday, Arias found himself facing one of the legendary heroes of his childhood, Ilie Nastase. He defeated the volatile Romanian in a 12-point tie breaker, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), in the first round of the Mutual Benefit Life Open in South Orange, N.J.

The right-handed prodigy is accustomed to challenging his elders. He started playing tennis against his father, Tony, an electrical engineer, when he was 5, but he did not begin to play seriously until he was 8, a ripe old age by modern-day standards. He defeated a pair of 16-year-olds in a local Buffalo tournament and he was hooked. At the age of 11, Arias captured the National 12 -and-under title, but his rapid development left him little competition. This, coupled with the lure of playing year-round tennis, made the Ariases decide to send Jimmy to Bollettieri.

''It took me a month or so to get adjusted down here,'' said Arias, now a senior at Bradenton High. ''I was a little homesick and not used to doing my own laundry and making my bed.''

At 14, Arias was ranked third nationally in the 21-and-under division and at 15, he became the youngest player to win a Grand Prix match and receive a ranking on the ATP computer. Nine days after turning 16, Arias became the youngest male to play in the US Open, winning his first match. Capturing the Osawa Head Cup in Osawa, Japan, in April of this year made Arias the youngest male to win a world-class event.

Scrutinizing Arias's progress is Bollettieri, who helped develop several top pros, including Brian Gottfried.

''At the same age, at the same point in their careers Jimmy is better than Brian,'' Bollettieri said. ''He can do more with the ball, he covers the court better, and his game is more balanced.''

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