While competing in a national tournament in California more than 50 years ago, Argentinian Hernan Molina _ already a two-time junior champion in his homeland _ impressed his opponent.
After a three-set quarterfinal loss to Tom Brown of California, Molina asked Brown if he thought Molina was good enough to play college tennis.
Not only was Brown certain Molina would be an asset to a college team, he helped Molina gain a full tennis scholarship to the University of San Francisco. In 1950, Molina came to the U.S. and enrolled at the school to play and study architecture.
"I actually gave up on the school after the first semester and went to Carmel, Calif., where I met John Gardner," said Molina, 74. "I worked some with him in tennis and later had an opportunity to study architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. I transferred there and worked a variety of jobs to help pay my own way."
Molina played on the university's squad and contributed to national titles in 1952 and '53, even though he said his skills suffered because of his work schedule.
"My dad was a tennis enthusiast and started me with lessons when I was about 10 years old," Molina said. "I was a junior champion in 1948 and 1949 and No. 8 in Argentina when I left for school in California."
Over the years, Molina has had opportunities to play with such greats as Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura and Barry McKay, as well as work with renowned tennis professional Gardner.
How far Molina may have progressed had he devoted himself to the sport is only conjecture since architecture always was his primary focus.
"I'm still working full time and have a one-man operation, so I don't get to play as much tennis as I would like," Molina said. "I play a couple of times a week and when I play, it's fun. I always try to win, and I feel lucky to still be playing at my age."
Until this season, Molina was rated at the 4.5 level, a division usually reserved for much younger players.
"I'd love to play singles, and often practice with the 4.5 guys, but I just don't have enough time," Molina said. "So I play doubles. I think my forehand is my best strength, and others say I have pretty good hands at the net."
Molina passed on his skills to his sons _ Andres, tennis director at Palma Ceia Country Club in Tampa; Santiago, a biology teacher in Tallahassee; and Ignacio, a teaching pro in Ocala. Molina's wife, Maria, was a member of the Racquet Club of St. Petersburg's 3.5 women's team that qualified for national tournament play a few years ago.
"We all play and have had fun playing with and against each other over the years," Molina said. "I play mostly doubles now and have been ranked No. 1 and 2 in the state in the 65 and 70 divisions with Dick Crawford from California. I had a phenomenal coach when I was a youngster. He encouraged me to develop a classic style of play. Every time I go out and play, I feel lucky to be able to play and grateful for how he taught me."
NET SHOTS: USA Tennis Florida, on behalf of its 44,000 USTA members, is donating $5,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund to help assist those impacted by the recent hurricanes.
+ Treasure Bay and East Lake each won their second straight matches in the USA Tennis Florida District 12 Adult Fall Men's 3.5 League.
+ Julia Sikorski defended her top seed in the Clearwater Fall Championships to win the girls 12-and-under singles title. Kara Kucin upset the No. 1 seed to take the 14 crown, and Garrett Betsarakis won the boys 14 competition.
Consolation winners included Dalila Chiadmi (girls 18), Katie Ossenmacher (14) and Alexandra Kitchen (10).
+ Mark Wagner defended his top seed in the SPTC Adult Classic Championships to win the men's 35-and-over singles title. Marc Mazo (55) and Andres Molina (45) captured crowns. Other winners included Yuri Kurashima (women's open) and William Gatlin (75).
Among the finalists were Lindsay Dvorak (women's open), Nancy Boyce (45) and Bill Christensen (55). Consolation winners included Morgan Frank (women's open).
PLAY FOR CHARITY: Plans are under way for the 21st annual Raymond James Pro/Am Tournament, Oct. 23-24 at Treasure Island Tennis and Yacht Club. The charity event benefits All Children's Hospital. Call 551-5280 or 892-4688 for information on sponsorships. Call 367-5479 for playing spots.
COMING UP: The annual Humane Society of Pinellas Charity Tennis Tournament is Sept. 29-Oct. 3 at Royal Racquet Club. Enter the men's, women's and mixed doubles event by the Sunday deadline. For information, call 799-3200. Seminole Lake Tennis Center has its Halloween Bowl for junior singles players Oct. 9-11. Call 394-1733 by the Oct. 6 deadline. Countryside Country Club has its Fall Junior Rookie Tournament on Oct. 9-10. Call 796-1136 by Oct. 6. Registration is available for the second session of the i9Sports Tennis League, which begins Oct. 25. Call (813) 541-3107 or register online at www.i9sports.com.
_ News for this column may be faxed to Nancy Morgan, 796-5559; e-mailed to namorgan46msn.com, or sent to 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756. Please include phone number.