The day after getting upset in the first round of the Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles three weeks ago, Johan Kriek was rapping and rallying with a tall sinewy black fellow who answers to Hoops. "Once, in college, I saw Darrell Griffith leap so high to take a shot that he was practically sitting on the shoulders of the guy who was guarding him," said Hoops. Kriek, a South African and the world's No. 9 player, made a polite noise in his throat and began to hit harder. He might not—umph!—know a Ewing from an Erving, but he—umph!—certainly knew a great athlete when he—umph!—hit against one. Kriek's practice partner was Lawrence Barnett Hooper III, a.k.a. Chip, Hoops and, with apologies to Yannick Noah, the next Arthur Ashe. Which isn't to say that Hooper, a 23-year-old native of Sunnyvale, Calif., is the latest in a line. In fact, at 6'6" and 210 pounds, he could be the beginning of one. If any more of his size and ability are out there ready to effloresce, tennis is sure to change a bit.
"Whoa!" shouted Kriek as a fierce Hooper backhand clipped a sideline. "That's enough, big guy. Where did you get that shot? The last time we hit, the only backhand you had was that funny little slice. Remember?"
Sure, because it wasn't too long ago. As 1982 began, Hooper was a University of Arkansas dropout with a history of eye trouble and a world ranking of 235. Now, after making the semis of two Grand Prix tournaments, he has vaulted to No. 17. His breakthrough came in January at the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships in Philadelphia, where he beat Peter Fleming, Roscoe Tanner and John Sadri to reach the final four. He then gave Jimmy Connors a scare before succumbing in four sets. Since Philly, Hooper's victims have included Brian Gottfried, Tomas Smid and Mel Purcell, and he hasn't lost to anyone ranked worse than 37.
Hooper's calling card is a thunderous first serve that clears the net at about 135 mph. But what really makes his serving destructive is his high-kicking second delivery. "All the players comment on it," he says. As well they should. His No. 2 is a wicked bit of spun deception that opponents often have to go on toe to return.
As for the rest of his game, Hooper's prodigious wingspan makes him as difficult to pass as one might imagine, but his groundstrokes are still somewhat erratic and tentative. However, when he hits out, he gets excellent action on the ball, and shots come off his racket like mini-locomotives. But his primary strength, that serve included, is his athleticism. "Look, it's not that he's big and that's all," said Ilie Nastase after Hooper had straight-setted him in the opening round of the Pacific Southwest. "It's his athletic ability. He is, I think, a good one."
Hooper himself thinks athleticism may be more integral to tennis than to, well, any sport you care to name. "I believe you can tell how good any athlete is by watching how he moves on a tennis court," says Hoops, who took modern dance last year to improve his balance and movement. "The other sports just aren't as tough. I played them. In tennis, you have to take into consideration ball, surface and opponent—all with no help."
Hooper's parents—his father, Lawrence, is a general practitioner and his mother, Wilma, is a high school guidance counselor—encouraged him to take up tennis as a child, but they never pressured him. Still, by age 12 he was ranked third nationally in his age division. The remainder of his junior career was less distinguished, and when college time rolled around, no free rides were waiting. Hooper drifted from Ca√±ada (Calif.) Junior College (1976-77) to Memphis State (1977-79) to Arkansas (1979-81). His game began to come together on the last leg of his journey, thanks largely to Razorback Coach Tom Pucci. Not only did Pucci help Hooper become a two-time All-America and the top seed in the 1981 NCAA tournament, but he also pointed Hooper in the direction of Nick Bollettieri, who runs a tennis camp in Bradenton, Fla. and has helped develop several junior and professional players. Hooper, who still makes pilgrimages to Bradenton from time to time, says Bollettieri "straightened up my groundstrokes and helped me understand the importance of mental toughness." After a three-month stint with Bollettieri last fall, it was good-by Arkansas, hello world.
Initially, Hooper's decision to quit college after his junior year didn't set well with his parents. "They're both educators [his father is on the faculty at El Camino Hospital], and they were very upset that I wasn't progressing toward a degree," he says. "But after I made All-America, they weren't so unhappy. I still don't feel the best about my lack of effort in my classes because I know I could have done much better. I'm a fairly bright individual." He is indeed. He's quite willing to display his fluency in Spanish, abstract thought and the, ah, universal language. He's a tennis player, all right.
At times, though, it has seemed that Hooper would be better off swinging a caduceus than a Prince. In February of last year he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. The injury kept him off the court for six weeks. Then at the NCAAs in May he was leading Drew Gitlin of SMU 4-1 in the final set of a quarterfinal match when he cramped. My, did he cramp.
"Everything except my neck knotted," Hooper recalls. "They took me to the hospital, and the cramps kept up for two more hours. They had to pump everything back into me intravenously."
These trials were minor compared with Hooper's eye ailment. As a child he developed a condition called pterygium, which is an unsightly overgrowth of tissue on the cornea thought to be caused by excessive exposure to wind, dust and sunlight. Tennis, anyone? Eventually, the pterygium grew to the point where it hindered his vision, not to mention his appearance. But two operations on his eyes, one in December 1980 and another last October, seem to have eliminated the disability.
As for his being one of the few blacks playing pro tennis, Hooper is shrugging and reflective. "The computer doesn't judge according to who's Italian or Indian or whatever," he says. "And people have been pretty genuine. If I ever have the chance to help other black players, it's only fair that I do so. I don't know if I'll inspire other blacks to play, but I might inspire bigger athletes. Imagine what a 6'9" Magic Johnson-type could do on a tennis court."
Right now a lot of pros are finding the play of a 6'6" Hooper-type mind-boggling enough.