Tennis ace trades one court for another
Former champ from Salem quit the circuit for legal pursuits
For the longest time, he dreamed of Wimbledon and world rankings and post-Grand Slam championship interviews with Bud Collins. That's what serious tennis players do.
And Jason Thompson was serious. The Salem native was ranked No. 1 in U.S. 14 doubles and No. 2 in singles in 1989. He was a national junior singles and doubles champion and a member of the nation's Junior Davis Cup team from 1990-92.
He participated in junior events at all four Grand Slam tournaments, competing with the best players in the world, reaching the Australian Open doubles finals and the 16th round at the U.S. Open.
The big kid from Sprague High spent more time on the road than at home, honing a serve-and-volley game that made him one of the top prospects in the country.
After a solid college career that took him from Kentucky to UCLA, Thompson was poised for a crack at glamour, fame and riches on the pro circuit. Then he took an unusual step. He said, 'No thanks' and got on with the rest of his life.
Five years later, Thompson, 27, has no regrets. He lives in Portland, owns law and business degrees from Willamette University, serves as judicial law clerk to Justice Paul DeMuniz of the Oregon Supreme Court and envisions a day when he represents pro athletes in legal affairs.
At 21, after finishing his collegiate eligibility at UCLA, Thompson walked away from the sport he had devoted himself to for more than a decade and entered law school at Willamette.
Thompson had experienced some knee problems, but that was only a small part of his decision, he says.
'I knew I was going to do one of three things Ñ go out on the tour and try to make a living, get a job, or go to law school. I chose the latter,' says Thompson, who has lived in a Pearl District condo for the past two years.
'At some point in my life, I was going to do it. One main reason people have in playing pro tennis is to see the world. Because of the experiences I'd had as a kid, I'd already done that. I also realized I was enjoying winning more than competing. That wasn't healthy. I knew it wasn't going to make me successful.'
Thompson had always had perspective. After starting on Sprague's varsity basketball team as a 6-2 freshman, the U.S. Tennis Association prohibited him from participating as a sophomore and junior while he was a member of the Junior Davis Cup team. As a senior, he dropped off the national team and returned to basketball, and a semblance of normal life.
Junior Davis Cup 'was all-encompassing,' he says.
There were only eight boys on the national team, and their travel and expenses were paid for by the USTA. Thompson attended regional camps run by Stan Smith and Tom Gullickson, took correspondence courses (many through Portland State), and qualified for Premier Executive through his frequent-flier miles.
'Jason was a really aggressive serve-and-volleyer, big and strong, and he dominated the junior players quite well,' says Smith, the U.S. Junior Davis Cup coach at the time. 'He continued to be one of the best in the junior game for several years.'
But other things were happening in Thompson's life. At 16, in the midst of his dedication to tennis, his parents, Bob and Edna, were going through a divorce.
'I got on an airplane to Italy knowing I'd be gone for six weeks, and I wasn't sure if they'd be together when I got back,' he says. 'That will make you grow up real quick.'
A normal kid
At the beginning of his senior year at Sprague, Thompson decided he was missing something important. He dropped off the Junior Davis Cup team.
'That meant going back to school full time, playing basketball, going to the senior prom Ñ that kind of stuff,' he says. 'I wanted to be a normal kid again. I wanted to play ball with all the buddies I'd played junior ball with for five years.'
And, for the first time since his freshman year, he played tennis for Sprague, winning the state singles championship.
'No matter how many national titles you win, it's not like playing for your high school,' he says. 'Winning state probably meant as much to me as anything I'd done.'
Through four years of college tennis, Thompson played with and against some of the top players in the world, at some of the biggest events. He remembers warming up Jim Courier for a match with Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open. Practicing with Tim Henman. Playing against Marcelo Rios. Somewhere along the line, it dawned on him that humility was a virtue he desired.
'The U.S. Open is a huge event, but it's still just a bunch of human beings trying to make a living,' he says. 'I left thinking no person is bigger than an industry itself. That was the biggest lesson I ever learned.'
Thompson enrolled at Willamette in the fall of 1997, taught and played tennis on the Northwest circuit and scored a summer internship with ProServ, one of the foremost agencies for pro athletes in Washington, D.C. He also worked in Sen. Gordon Smith's office as a volunteer, doing research with legislative aides.
'I didn't make a dime, and it was the greatest summer of my life because of the experience,' he says.
The next summer, Thompson had an internship in the legal department of the Association of Tennis Professionals circuit office in Jacksonville, Fla., picking up a little more experience in the tennis industry. He wrote for the Willamette Law Review, graduated from Willamette with a law degree and a master's in business last May, and now commutes from Portland for his work with the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem.
'I've always liked Portland,' he says. 'I would love to make it my home for a long time.'
'I think I want to be a lawyer,' he says. 'I'm interested in so many things. Litigation. Transactional work. Maybe work for an agency representing athletes. I don't want to be a traditional agent. I would rather be an attorney who works for athletes. I think I know both sides pretty well. I could see myself establishing a practice in D.C. for a time, but that's a transient place. Oregon has always been home for me.'
Wondering, without regret
Smith, who runs a tennis academy at Sea Pines, S.C., has made a phenomenal living as a player and administrator in tennis, but he understands Thompson's decision.
'It would have been interesting if he had gone out and tried his luck (on the pro tour),' Smith says. 'His success would have depended on his ground strokes. Unless you're a guy like (Patrick) Rafter, you have to be able to stay back, work your way to the net and not always rely on your serve and volley. Most guys do try it for a bit, but the percentage of good young juniors who make it in the pros is very slim.'
Thompson says he has mixed emotions about his career choice.
'You always wonder what life would have been like if you'd taken the other path,' he says. 'I don't regret it, but I wonder about it.'
Today, Thompson works law, and he plays tennis. He teaches every Sunday afternoon at a club in Salem, and he occasionally plays a tournament. Last summer, he reached the finals of the Portland City Championships at the Multnomah Athletic Club. He was ahead in the second set, serving for the match, when the opponent broke service to stay alive. And then É it was time to head back to Salem to teach lessons. He defaulted the match.
'Had to,' he says, grinning. 'My clients come first.'