Losing to Zina Garrison in straight sets Thursday night really was the easy part, easier at least than what young Jeri Ingram is about to go through between now and early August. All the 17-year-old phenom from Springbrook High School has to do over those next six months is arrive at a decision that heavily, heavily will affect the rest of her life.
Here is Ingram's problem: to turn pro or not to turn pro? Georgetown or Wimbledon? Syracuse or the French Open? Hundreds of thousands of dollars or allowance from dad? Three hours with free weights or 30 minutes with beer and pizza? Glamor now or time to grow? Is her mind ready? Her body? What about burnout? Is she good enough?
Joe Ingram, Jeri's father and one of her three coaches, is understandably apprehensive. He is a man with eyes wide open, wide enough to see young men like Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias, and young women like Andrea Jaeger and maybe even Tracy Austin, who seem to have made the wrong decision by skipping college and turning pro right out of high school.
And that doesn't even count all those who crack the top 20 by age 16, don't get any better, grow frustrated and fall out of the top 100 by the time they're 20.
"Jeri wants to do it," her father said yesterday, while the Virginia Slims of Washington continued into the quarterfinals. "She's ready to take her chances and find out. And I guess it says something really good about her that she's so ready to go. Me? I'm scared to death about it."
At 17, a senior at Springbrook, Ingram isn't old enough to have such fears; that's what responsible parents and coaches are supposed to have. What Ingram has is loads of potential, an abundance of spunk, such a bad taste for losing that she voluntarily stayed at Patriot Center past midnight to practice after losing a doubles match earlier this week, and a good deal of common sense and savvy for someone so young.
"I'm not to the point of lying awake at night thinking about turning pro or not, but I do think about it a lot," Ingram said. "I sat down one day and wrote out the pros and cons on a sheet of paper, but it doesn't work that way. Or let me say, it doesn't work that way for me. I've got to go with a gut feeling. There's got to be some logic involved, too. It's a difficult thing.
"The thing is, there's nothing definite about turning professional. I mean, turning pro in itself is nothing. Are you good enough to stay a pro is what I'm trying to figure out. I know that risks losing a scholarship to play in college and other things . . . Right now, it's wait and see."
Actually, it's more like play and see. Ingram, after more fine tuning at Aspen Hill, intends to play a couple of tournaments a month this summer, either on the pro tour or the satellite tour, and determine whether she has the tools to turn professional by the end of August. "We're going to hit the road when school is out," Joe Ingram said. "We're going to find out how good we are. I've been saying to Jeri, 'Let the numbers show. Don't tell me you're good enough to turn pro, show me.' "
Joe Ingram certainly doesn't seem to be cut from the same gruff cloth as some tennis fathers, most notably Roland Jaeger, whose own fire probably helped burn out his daughter, Andrea. Yes, Joe's scared, but he also realizes that the softness of college tennis can set a career into retreat if the player doesn't find challenges elsewhere.
Gene Russo was mostly smiles after Jeri, his prize pupil, had lost to Garrison Thursday. "Jeri played the best match I think she's ever played," he said. "But she got a lesson tonight on how to play the game. And it was a free lesson, much cheaper than one of mine, for sure."
When asked her opinion on Ingram turning professional, Martina Navratilova -- the No. 1-ranked player for most of this decade -- said, "College is good for your life, but it will do nothing for her tennis. Absolutely nothing. Coaching is poor; I guess some colleges are good. But you don't learn too many good habits. If you're good enough to make it on the circuit, you should go for it. Make enough money to pay for your education later.
"I don't want to sound like I'm downplaying college athletics," said Navratilova, who was playing Grand Slam tournaments at 16. "If you're a marginal player, go to school, get a degree and try to get some good coaching. But you finish college at 22; Steffi Graf is No. 1 and she's 18. The years from 16 to 20, in tennis, are essential."
Especially women's tennis. Of the 32 women who were in the singles draw here, the average age is 22. Seven are teen-agers, and 15 are aged 21 or under.
Ingram wasn't even the youngest player in this field. Natalia Zvereva, the No. 8 seed from the Soviet Union, made it to the quarterfinals and she's 16, not to mention 8,000 miles or so away from home half the year. Kim Kessaris, who lost to Gabriela Sabatini in the first round, is 14. She's three years ahead academically, a junior at Heritage Hall High School in Hendersonville, N.C. She, too, is about to enter into a wait-and-see summer that may convince her she should turn professional by the fall.
Barbara Potter, one of the senior citizens on the tour at 26, has taken an interest in Ingram's career and has given her a couple of pointers this week that were so crucial Joe Ingram sprinted down the hall to offer his thanks.
Potter was admitted to Princeton a few years ago, but turned pro. "There are so many questions to answer," Potter said. "I'm not sure I could go through it again the same way. It's not easy, really. You need good parents and a guardian-type coach. The people who love you have to be really responsible with advice. And for the player -- and this is really important to me -- it should be a choice to play, not an obligation.
"There have been a few lately who have come out too young; 16 is awfully young. But, yes, many do mature quickly. Many of the base-liners mature at 21, 24 if they play an attacking style."
It will not be a leisurely summer around the Ingram household. Sometime boxer/full-time tennis fan Sugar Ray Leonard already has offered his backing should Jeri decide to turn pro.
Five years younger than Jeri, is sister Sharon, another good player. Joe is scared to think too far ahead. "I've already told her," he said, "just be good enough to hit with me on the weekends."