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Stark opens new chapter in career

Medford native begins ATP Tour season with new doubles partner

About six months after marrying his longtime girlfriend, Medford's Jonathan Stark has embarked on another new partnership.

The 26-year-old professional tennis player began the 1998 ATP Tour season with a new doubles partner: former Stanford University teammate Alex O'Brien.

Stark had a very successful 1997 season playing with Rick Leach. The two reached six finals -- including four of the season's last five. They capped the year by taking the ATP Tour World Doubles Championship in November.

But before the big fall run got going, the two had decided to part ways.

At the U.S. Open, we talked about not playing together because we played really bad last summer, says Stark. Then we were playing unbelievable all fall but he'd already committed to play with someone else.

Stark was looking for a partner when Davis Cup captain Tom Gullickson approached him about playing with O'Brien.

Gullie kind of asked us if we would play together with the idea of being a consistent Davis Cup team, says Stark. At the Davis Cup, it's really hard to play with someone you're not used to playing with.

Stark should know. He is 0-4 in Davis Cup doubles matches -- including a crucial defeat with Todd Martin in last year's 5-0 loss to Sweden.

Injuries have limited Stark's and O'Brien's effectiveness thus far in 1998. The two have played in just two tournaments, reaching the third round of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn.

Alex and I haven't played great, Stark says. We've both kind of struggled with injuries.

In last week's Advanta Championships in Philadelphia, Stark reached the third round in singles but didn't play doubles because O'Brien was suffering from a shoulder injury.

Stark's season got off to a rough start in Australia, where he had to pull out of a second-round singles match with tendinitis in his right knee.

Something happened to it in my match and I couldn't put any weight on it, he says. It's OK I don't feel like its 100 percent yet. It's something that I'm still a little frustrated with.

Since the injury, trainer Ken Matsuda -- who has worked extensively with Michael Chang -- has been traveling with Stark to treat the injury.

He's been helping a lot, working on my flexibility, Stark says.

He is taking this week off to rest in at his home in Seattle. He'll also spend some time in Palm Springs, Calif., before returning to action March 9 for the Newsweek Champions Cup in Indian Wells, Calif.

Because they haven't played much together, Stark and O'Brien aren't high in the ATP rankings as a team. Individually, Stark is ranked 22nd in doubles and O'Brien 10th.

With his 27th birthday just over a month away, Stark knows the clock is ticking on his playing career.

But as his seventh season on the Tour gets going, Stark says it's too early to begin thinking about winding down his career.

I feel good about it. It's pretty old in tennis terms but I don't feel old, he says. If I can get healthy and stay healthy there's no reason I can't go on for years. Petr Korda just won a Grand Slam at 30 years old. Obviously, I don't have as much time as I had when I was 21 but I'm still working hard and I don't think I'm too old by any means.

The numbers support Stark's case. Only 35 players in the world made more in prize money than he did last year and 15 of them are older than him. Two of the top players, top-ranked Pete Sampras and No. 10 Goran Ivanisevic are less than six months younger.

Stark, who made most of his $550,298 last season playing doubles, says he hasn't considered focusing solely on either doubles or singles, where he is ranked 97th. He believes his best tennis in both lies ahead.

I feel good about the way I'm hitting the ball and playing, he says. It's a tough game. A lot of guys can play. I feel good about the way I'm playing I just haven't won a lot of matches. I'm trying to stay positive and work hard and hopefully I can make a push here.