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Stark's story: Growing up in Medford, tennis stardom

The age of specialization in youth sports is likely older than some think.

Jonathan Stark wrestled with focusing on tennis over other pursuits — notably basketball — when he was a schoolboy wunderkind in Medford in the late 1980s.

In fact, against the advice of the U.S. Tennis Association and others in the field, he had the audacity to put his racket aside for a several months and play high school basketball during his senior year at South Medford High.

“Some people probably would say, at the level I was playing, that’s a crazy break,” said the 47-year-old Stark, who will be the keynote speaker at the fifth-annual Southern Oregon Sports Commission awards banquet. “I really didn’t pick up a racket the whole time. It gave me a nice break from tennis, a real natural break as far as from tournaments and so forth.

“It made me hungry to get back on the (tennis) court and play.”

At a time when experts are calling for increased diversification in youth sports, Stark will talk about his experiences while growing up in Medford and share memories from his 11 years on the ATP Tour, where he was ranked No. 1 in doubles, won 19 men’s doubles titles and teamed with Martina Navratilova for one of his Grand Slam championships.

The banquet is Thursday at the Santo Community Center, 701 N. Columbus Ave. Doors open at 5 p.m., and the program — featuring the selection of the SOSC’s male and female athletes of the year and the honoring of major contributors and athletes — begins at 5:30.

Tickets are $30, or four for $100, and can be purchased at southernoregonsports.com or by calling 541-608-8517. They are $35 at the door.

Stark, who lives in Portland with his wife, Dana, and their three children, has stayed close to tennis since culminating his professional career in 2001.

The family lived for 20 years in Seattle, where Stark oversaw the junior program at the Seattle Tennis Club. They moved to Portland, and he spent four years working at Gameday Media before returning to tennis.

Stark has been the director of Oregon Elite Tennis in Beaverton the past two years, working with high-performance junior players.

He admits there’s conflict between his work with top-notch players who are zeroed in on tennis versus his message to seek variety.

“It goes against kind of what I’m doing, but I’m a big believer in well-rounded kids,” said Stark. “I always encourage kids to do what they want to do.”

They might have to narrow their activities eventually, he added, but branching out at an early age is beneficial.

Stark remembers deciding between tennis and baseball in the fourth grade.

Basketball, however, remained a constant through high school, with the exception of his junior year.

“The USTA was there chirping in our ears,” said Stark, “saying you’re crazy doing this, what if you get hurt, this and that. So, we listened. It was a decision my parents (Dick and Janet) and I made together. I didn’t play my junior year and I missed it. There was a little question of whether I’d play my senior year, but I’m sure glad I did.”

The family also mulled the possibility of Stark attending a tennis academy, possibly in Florida, but he elected to stay home and “experience some of the so-called normal things that you do.”

As a senior in 1988-89, Stark was on the Panthers’ basketball team under first-year coach Dennis Murphy.

The footwork Stark displayed on the tennis court came in handy in the key. But, he said, he wasn’t nearly so accomplished on the hardwood.

“I was a garbage player,” said Stark. “I got a lot of offensive rebounds and did a little bit of the dirty work. I loved it. I loved every second of it.”

Murphy, of course, went on to carve out a remarkable career. He’s No. 3 in all-time victories among Oregon boys basketball coaches with 697.

“Murph was great,” said Stark. “He had tons of energy, which he always had. He was hard on us; we had to be responsible for our roles. The thing I remember the most is how much fun we had.”

Among his teammates were his brother, Ted, a freshman, and Will Forsyth, another accomplished tennis player.

That team lost in the second of the state playoffs.

The respite from tennis was the last of such length Stark would have for some time. He played at Stanford, twice becoming a singles and doubles All-American, then embarked on his professional career.

Stark won two singles titles, beating Cedric Pioline in 1993 in Bolzano, Italy, and Michael Chang in 1996 in the Singapore Open.

His greatest success, however, came in doubles. He captured 19 men’s doubles titles, including the French Open with Byron Black in 1994, and was ranked No. 1 doubles that year.

Stark also played on four U.S. Davis Cup teams.

Among his highlights was teaming with Navratilova, one of the icons of the sport, to win mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1995.

“To be able to say I was a Wimbledon champion is pretty cool,” Stark admitted, “and to be able to play with Martina Navratilova, who is one of the greatest players of all-time.”

That Wimbledon tournament was the first time they paired up. They played together later that year in the U.S. Open, then in the same two tournaments the following year before going separate ways.

“I can’t remember why we stopped,” said Stark. “We did well each time. Obviously, we didn’t win again, but we did well. Wimbledon was just like any tournament. We had some real close matches in the early rounds, pulled them out and then ended up winning it, which was pretty cool.”

The defeated Cyril Suk and Gigi Fernández in the final, 6–4, 6–4.

Stark’s professional days are largely behind him. He keeps in contact with his friends from those days and had one of them, Jim Courier, address his academy when the Davis Cup team came through the area.

“The problem is,” said Stark, “I bring these people in and they don’t know who anybody is from my generation.”

When Stark broke into the pro ranks, the top names included John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander as well as peers from his junior days like Pete Sampras, Courier and Chang.

“I definitely had the star-struck feeling and can remember playing Johnny Mac in the Canadian Open in later rounds,” said Stark. “I was a couple years into my career, and it’s a surreal feeling competing and playing against your heroes growing up. I’m lucky to be able to have experienced that.”

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com

30 Sep-9 Oct 1996: Jonathan Stark of the USA in action during the Heineken Open in Singapore. Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill/Allsport