Arias harbors few regrets over career



Jimmy Arias turns 40 next month. It's hard to fathom when you step back and think how much time has passed. It's strange, like hearing Jerry Mathers talk about his own kids when, in your mind, he's still the Beaver.

For my generation, Arias was always Jimmy Arias From Grand Island. He was Western New York's tennis prodigy, the kid who left home at 13 for full-time instruction in Florida, the kid at 15 who became the youngest ranked player in the world, the kid at 16 who turned professional.

It has been 20 summers since he was ranked fifth in the world, back when his drive and innocence allowed him to dream about being No. 1. In the 1980s, he was among the giants. He was deadly with his topspin forehand, relentless along the baseline. He could beat anybody on clay. He was on the right path before inexplicably sliding down the rankings and eventually disappearing in 1992.

Even to him, his dozen years on tour are a blur except for this: He was a hair away from greatness and turned the other way. He made peace with himself long ago, but the fact remains he could have been better and settled for less. It's something he realized over time, a truth that he regrets to this day.

"I decided, unfortunately, that I didn't want to be No. 1 because those guys don't have a normal life," Arias said last week from his home in Sarasota, Fla. "I'm thinking No. 5 was fantastic because I make a lot of money, but normal people don't know who I am. I loved that spot. As soon as I (thought) that, I got uptight. I was no longer playing to get better. I was trying to protect my ranking."

Arias won five singles titles in his career, none after his 20th birthday. He had some memorable Grand Slam matches. He won a five-set marathon over Yannick Noah in the 1983 U.S. Open quarterfinals after getting smoked in the fourth set and gutting out the fifth. Ivan Lendl beat him in the semifinals, and we assumed Arias' tank was empty.

Little did we know, little did he know, Arias was losing his competitive edge. He played nine more years. He stayed mostly in the top 50 but nowhere near his potential once the passion was gone. He examined his draw before the '83 Open and rationalized that making the semis was good enough.

That summer, Arias became satisfied with fifth in the world and never pushed for first. Mononucleosis widened the gap between him and the best, but that's not what stopped him. He stopped him. Desire abandoned him first, confidence followed and Arias never regained the form he had at 18.

"I would have rather tried to plow forward and been No. 1, even for a minute," he said. "I don't think I could have stayed No. 1 because I didn't have that mentality or whatever it is. Those guys are weird. Everyone who's No. 1 is weird. I feel like I fell short of what I could have done, but I also appreciate what I've done."

It's why he's not tormented by his career as he enters his 40s. Tennis gave him a wife, the former Gina Robinson, whom he met after a 1987 doubles match in which he picked her out of the crowd. In turn, tennis gave him an 8-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, neither of whom care for their father's game.

Tennis gave him a part-time job as a color commentator with ESPN International. Tennis gave him enough time for golf and squash, sports he never played as a kid because he was immersed in tennis. And tennis will bring him home next weekend, when he's scheduled to play Aaron Krickstein at Amherst Hills Tennis Club as part of the first Eastern Tennis Symposium.

Tennis might be in his blood, but it's not what keeps him alive. He's enjoying time with his family and living the good life. At some point, that's what it means to be No. 1.