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Greg Patton

Game, set and match: Boise State tennis coach helps to net Davis Cup Quarterfinals


By his own admission, Greg Patton is a spiritual man -- not necessarily religious, but spiritual.

"I have a bet with all of the other Boise State coaches of who is going to win a national championship first," he said. "So if I die and go to heaven, I'll tell St. Peter that I'm not ready yet and please send me back to win a national championship."

Don't bet against him. Patton, 60, has beaten the odds his whole life. The oldest son of seven children, he always knew that he wanted to do something in the world of sports. But that didn't keep him from running for the Santa Barbara, Calif., City Council at the age of 19, working for the Peace Corps in Ghana, and surviving two major tragedies at a very young age.

Patton can't sit still. Boise State's head tennis coach even bounces while sitting in his office at the University's Boa Tennis Center. But Boise Weekly got him to sit still long enough to talk about coaching the best his sport has to offer, his friend Steve Appleton, and how he helped to secure the Davis Cup Quarterfinals in coming to Boise.

I understand that your dad used to read the sports pages to you as a kid.

He would be up all night writing a sports column for the Santa Barbara News Press, so he would be at the breakfast table when we all got up in the morning.

And your dad passed away when you were very young.

I was 17. You don't understand reality when you're young. I kept thinking he would heal of his cancer. He was 41. (Patton paused for a moment.) I think more of him now than ever before.

Tell me about another incident when you were young, involving a BB gun.

I was shot in the eye. I was about 10 or 11 years old.

How significant was your injury.

The BB tore my pupil in half. I was legally blind in my right eye. I have since had three major surgeries. I loved baseball, basketball and football growing up but when I had the injury, my coordination was way off. My mother taught at an all-girls' school and coached various sports, so she started throwing tennis balls to me. At first, I was missing all of them. But tennis is a bit like golf. You hit one good shot and you think, "Oh my God, I've got it."

You've coached some of the best American tennis players of our time: Pete Sampras, Jim Courier ...

Michael Chang. MaliVai Washington, Andy Roddick, Sam Querrey, the Bryan brothers.

Was Sampras the best?

I said Sampras was going to be a world-class player. I thought Courier, Roddick and the Bryan brothers were going to be great. Sampras was a delight but he was so shy and introverted.

As great as Sampras was, is it possible that wasn't appreciated fully because he wasn't a fiery personality?

He's still soft-spoken. But you know what? He loved to play and was incredibly fast.

My whole thing of coaching all those boys as juniors was to bring them together as a family. And that's a lot of what we do with our Boise State team. I say, "Let's play some basketball, some soccer."

How does that manifest in tennis skill?

I like players to turn to their peers to make them better. For some reason, there has been a problem in the United States where we separate our tennis players, because some thought they would figure out how to beat one another. But what we're really looking for is potential, attitude and love for the game.

But back when I was coaching Sampras, Courier and the rest, all of the sportswriters were asking, "What's wrong with American tennis?" Most of those boys weren't the best junior players at the time, but they all took off. They were magical.

Sportswriters are still questioning what's wrong with American tennis.

I know. Around the world, tennis is the second most popular sport. I coach the national collegiate team in Europe and we play in front of thousands of people. Here in the U.S., we're looking again for those magical players.

But aren't the best of our athletes ending up in other sports, like basketball?

Yeah, and football and extreme sports. Coaches can either romance kids toward a sport or turn them off.

Are you always looking for the next great player?

Ernest Hemingway said, "If you don't turn your head, you might as well be dead."

What is it like for your son Garrett to have you as a coach?

It's 10 times harder for him than it is for me. As he's become more gifted and successful, I took off the coaching hat and put on the father hat.

Do you watch him from a distance?

I'll take a glance with my good eye.

I know that you were very close to Steve Appleton. Do you think of him often?

I'm honored that we were such good friends. Steve would always host the tennis team each year at Micron. Steve was extraordinary--his work ethic, passion for life and competition.

Isn't it fitting that your office, per se, is the university's Appleton Tennis Center?

You know those beautiful grass berms between the courts? I tell people that's where I want to be buried.

Tell me how you helped to lure the Davis Cup Quarterfinals to Boise April 5-7.

It was down to us and Tacoma. It was like two girls waiting to be asked to the prom. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Describe how the Davis Cup is different from any other tennis experience.

It's Woodstock. It would be like the Rolling Stones playing on the first day, then Led Zeppelin on the second day, and then on the third day, it would be the Beach Boys and the Beatles together.

And, presuming he's healthy, the world's No. 1 player, Novak Djokovic is scheduled to play here against the U.S. team.

He's the most charismatic tennis player in the world right now, unbelievable. And Djokovic would probably come here five days prior to the competition to get ready.

Would the matches be played at Taco Bell Arena?

Yeah. I'm on pins and needles.

I must note that you haven't been able to sit still through this conversation. What's the source of your energy?

I used to think everyone is like me.

I can assure you that no one is like you.

I love sports because people that retain that childlike sense of play will basically enjoy a more enriched life.

How many hours a night do you sleep?

Maybe four or five. But I'm working on that.