Kaboom! Clay Thompson, age 5 (left) and 19, is about to smash a forehand.

(photo by Tommy Thompson)

As the years seem to fly by I’ve concluded that getting older has very few advantages. Forget “maturity” and “wisdom,” all I can think of are the senior discounts at movie theaters and Norms restaurant. But since I rarely go to the movies anymore and have never dined at Norms, I’m hardly comforted.

Unmistakably, there are definitely moments in life when it dawns on you that you’ve gotten old. I recall the Woody Allen character who glanced in the mirror and exclaimed in horror, “When did I go bald?”

For me it could have been the first time I was examined by a doctor younger than I was, or when I was pulled over by a motorcycle cop half my age. Or last summer my apartment pool, when a bikini-wearing woman, young enough to be my granddaughter, asked, “Sir, excuse me, what time do you have?”

Sir? (Even worse, she spoke loudly, thinking I was hard of hearing.)

Another time I felt unusually old was last year when I heard that Clay Thompson was in college. That’s impossible, I mumbled to myself. Just yesterday Clay was in grade school. Yeah, well now he’s 6 feet 6 inches tall and the number two player on UCLA’s nationally-ranked tennis team.

I first met Clay 15 years ago as I played tennis, almost daily, at the Ocean View Courts next to my apartment complex in Ocean Park. Clay’s father, Tommy, also played tennis there and often brought Clay to the courts when he was still in a stroller. And now Clay’s a sophomore at UCLA, begging the question, where did the time go? As Bette Davis once mused, “Getting old is not for sissies.”

Thinking of all the hours Clay spent on the tennis court, I’m reminded of the old joke about show business. A New York tourist innocently asks a man on the street, “Pardon me, do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Yeah,” the man answers, “PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.”

From age 5 through 12, Clay took countless lessons at Ocean View from his coach, Michael Kelly. In the beginning it seemed like the racket was almost as big as Clay. But he was such a determined kid, and when he wore sunglasses, a cool black T-shirt and a matching black headband, the combination killed me.

I swear it seemed like one minute Clay was 3 foot 6 inches and then 5 feet 6 inches tall. A few years later, he enrolled in Crossroads School here in Santa Monica. In his freshman year, Clay led his tennis team to a state championship, while as a junior he won the state individual championship.

Not surprisingly, as a senior Clay received scholarship offers from almost every college in the country. He visited Duke, but thankfully chose UCLA. I say “thankfully” because I’m a UCLA alum and if Clay had gone to USC this column would be harder for me to write.

It’s hard enough as it is because SC’s tennis team is ranked No. 1 in the country. So when they meet at the L.A. Tennis Center on the UCLA campus next Wednesday (Feb. 29; tickets are free to the public) at 2 p.m. the Trojans will likely be favored over the eighth ranked Bruins. My hunch is that it could come down to the last match to determine the winner. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Clay saves the day. He’s done it before.

Clay, who turns 20 this May, has had a national collegiate ranking as high as 35. As for his future, he says, “I have a lot of interests outside of tennis, including broadcasting and journalism, but I really want to give myself a chance on the professional tour.”

In pursuing his pro tennis dream, the odds are probably long against Clay. But, then again, the odds were rather long he’d go from the stroller at Ocean View to the number two player on UCLA’s team.

If Clay does make it on the pro tour, I’ll be exceedingly proud, although it might make me feel just that much older. Either way, however, it’ll be a lot more gratifying than having a bikini-wearing young woman ask loudly, “Excuse me sir, what time is it?”

Clay and UCLA battle USC at the L.A. Tennis Center on the Bruin campus on Wednesday at 2 p.m. Jack can be reached at jnsmdp@aol.com.

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