Chip Hooper: a black tennis star on the horizon

Chip Hooper doesn't really resemble Arthur Ashe, but he has long since grown accustomed to being mistaken for the former Wimbledon and US champion. ''How ya doin', Arthur,'' people naively ask the world's 27th ranked tennis player. And inevitably their games are also frequently compared.

Ashe himself calls such comparisons unfair, but understandable as long as so few blacks compete at the world class level. ''As soon as there are sizeable numbers of black players on the pro tour, winning major titles, this will all stop,'' he says.

Some inroads have been made in recent years, and Hooper is hardly the lone phenomenon Arthur was when he burst into prominence in the 1960s. Indeed, Yannick Noah, an Ashe discovery from the French Cameroon, actually is ahead of Hooper in the computer rankings and is seeded ninth here at the US Open, while Hooper is unseeded.

Even so, Hooper, unusually large for a tennis player at 6 ft. 6 in. and 210 pounds, can be as dangerous as anyone given his 135 m.p.h. serve. In a first round, straight sets victory over Marcel Freeman, his service motion appeared to begin somewhere in New Jersey and end right before the net. If you don't get the knack of returning his serves quickly, it's ''See you back at the clubhouse.''

Hooper repaired there himself after beating Freeman, then dawdled interminably in the locker room, which is off limits to the press. Meanwhile his coach, Nick Bollettieri, fielded questions about his prize pupil.

Nick has taken two other lower-ranked black prospects, Lloyd Bourne and Rodney Harmon, under his wing at his Bradenton, Fla., tennis academy, but Hooper seems to hold the greatest promise.

''For a man his size, Chip moves very well on the court, '' Bollettieri says. '' At the net, with his reach, he's very hard to pass. And if he wins the toss, he can hold serve, break his opponent's once, and win the set.''

And what of his weaknesses? ''Well, we've worked a lot on his ground strokes, '' Nick explains. ''They've improved tremendously, but he still has a way to go. It's okay to miss, but not with a shot that hits the bottom of the net or sails five feet past the baseline. He has to cut down on these kinds of errors.''

Though not particularly eager to be interviewed, Hooper becomes more cooperative after a few questions. The Sunnyvale, Calif., native doesn't hesitate to share his ultimate tennis objective: to be No. 1, but he does so matter-of-factly, not boastfully. He sees no reason to be awed by the game's superstars. His serve, after all, is a great equalizer .

''Not getting a big head,'' is what he calls his biggest challenge at the moment. ''Winning a lot of money can change a person if he's not careful.''

''Hoop,'' however, is keeping it in perspective, judging from his rapport with younger players at the tennis academy. Says one Bollettieri aide, ''We've got juniors who are 12, 14, 16 years old, and Chip will hit with any of them. After a while, some players get to thinking they're too good to do that.''

It wasn't long ago, of course, that Hooper himself was a virtual nobody. A dropout from the University of Arkansas, where he twice earned All-America honors, he started the year ranked No. 235 in the world.

He catapulted to No. 17 in January after reaching the semifinals of the US Indoors, where he knocked off Peter Fleming, Roscoe Tanner, and John Sadri, before losing to Jimmy Connors. He has lost to Connors in two more semis, had some ups and downs, and fallen back slightly on the computer.

As Hooper develops into a more complete, consistent player, he hopes to inspire other big men in the sport, where he and 6-7 Victor Amaya are the current skyscrapers. ''Imagine what a 6-9 Magic Johnson type could do on a tennis court,'' he fantasizes.

Hooper gravitated to tennis largely because his parents encouraged him at an early age. His father is a doctor, his mother a high school guidance counseler, so in this regard his background fits into the game's image as a middle-to-upper income class sport.

''We have a huge future in the game,'' Ashe once said, ''but the key to black progress in tennis lies in the public schools. If we don't beef up the tennis programs there, only the parents of the middle class black child will be able to afford to kick out the extra dough needed for him or her to compete.''

There's been progress, as shown by the presence of a handful of black players on the men's and women's tours. So far the women have generally met with more success - the leading ones being 18-year-old Zina Garrison and 25-year-old Leslie Allen. Garrison, from Houston, won the junior titles last year at Wimbledon and the US Open, and is the first black female (No. 16) to be seeded here since two-time champion Althea Gibson in 1957 and '58. Allen, who shares a Harlem brownstone with her actress mother, broke through on the winter tour with a win in Detroit.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.