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Former tennis pro Mike Kunnen picks up pingpong paddle and qualifies for HardBat Classic

DUNEDIN

Every day, Mike Kunnen heads to his family room, grabs a pingpong paddle and spends a few hours fine-tuning his table tennis skills against his sons, their friends and even his brother. "He," said Kunnen's wife, Jenifer, "really gets into it." Kunnen isn't just playing for fun. He has a shot at $100,000.

That is the winner's take at the upcoming HardBat Classic, a table tennis tournament that begins Friday in Las Vegas and includes more than 1,000 participants. The 46-year-old Kunnen, a father of two and Dunedin resident, reached for the event by winning two local qualifiers.

"I've really been blindsided by the whole thing," Kunnen said.

It's easy to understand why.

Kunnen hadn't picked up a paddle in at least 15 years when, on a whim, he entered a tournament in April at Eddie's Bar & Grill in Dunedin.

At first, he was rusty. In fact, he nearly lost his opening match.

But trailing 10-7, Kunnen rallied to take five straight points and win.

"After that, I didn't have much trouble," Kunnen said.

With three more victories, Kunnen advanced to another qualifier. In that one, held in May at the Venue in St. Petersburg, he won the championship with relative ease to earn an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Vegas.

"I had so much fun watching him play," said Jenifer Kunnen, a teacher at St. Cecelia Catholic School in Clearwater. "When he was warming up, I kept thinking, 'There's no way he's going to beat this one or that one,' But he has that killer instinct."

His athletic background probably didn't hurt.

Today, Kunnen rents and leases warehouses, but in his former life, he played professional tennis before becoming a well-known teaching professional.

He isn't the family's only athlete, either.

Kunnen's mother, the late Laura Lou Kunnen, competed at Wimbledon in the 1950s and is a member of the United States Tennis Association Hall of Fame.

One of his sons, Kevin, will play baseball at Florida State next year. The other, Kyle, plays both baseball and football at Dunedin High, where he's a junior.

"They've both been helping me out," Kunnen said of his children.

In the HardBat Classic, players will use throwback paddles without the sponge surfaces typically used today. The hardbat paddles are believed by some to produce longer rallies and require more strategy.

Kunnen, who will be joined on the trip by his wife and sons, doesn't know quite what to expect in Vegas, but he plans to be as prepared for the tournament as possible. That means the daily practice sessions will continue until it's time to depart.

"He's a kid again," Jenifer Kunnen said. "And I love it."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at kniebuhr@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4156.

HardBat Classic When: Friday-Sunday Where: Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, Las Vegas TV: Highlights from the event will air this fall. Organizers said the network has not been determined. About: The classic is a table tennis event with more than 1,000 players from across the country. It consists of both amateurs and professionals. First prize is $100,000. Players will use throwback paddles without sponge surfaces, which are believed to produce longer rallies and require lots of strategy. On the Web: www.hardbatclassic.com/

Former tennis pro Mike Kunnen picks up pingpong paddle and qualifies for HardBat Classic 06/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 8:10pm]

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