A powerful return: Cardinal Newman tennis coach resuming pro career

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Kady Pooler, left, jokes around with Mamadou Diouf during a training session Wednesday at Montecito Heights Health and Racket Club. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Kady Pooler, left, jokes around with Mamadou Diouf during a training session Wednesday at Montecito Heights Health and Racket Club. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

HEALDSBURG — It’s a bit out of the ordinary for one professional tennis player to ask another for a favor at a tournament, but Kady Pooler was happy to oblige when approached by a competitor at an event in the Caribbean last year. Anyway, the younger player wasn’t asking for advice on her backhand or her serve. She wanted help with her algebra homework.

“That happens every tournament now,” Pooler said, sitting across the street from the Healdsburg Plaza on a recent afternoon.

Six months ago, she was teaching algebra and coaching tennis at Cardinal Newman. Now, at 27 — long past the age at which most athletes attempt to kick-start a pro career — Pooler is back on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, sights centered on her ultimate athletic goal: to play doubles in the U.S. Open.

Her path has been a strange one, at least for a sport in which high-school-aged players are common and Serena Williams is considered on AARP’s doorstep at 31.

Pooler once took a more conventional route. Raised in San Clemente, in Southern California, she played at Arizona State and graduated in 2007 with hopes of launching a long pro career. She tasted success, winning a couple of tournaments, but soon found herself torn between tennis and family issues.

Pooler remembers her father picking her up from school and driving her to a tennis lesson when she was 12. The two shared a ritual. They called the car’s glove box the “love box,” and Larry Pooler would always leave a treat in there for Kady to find.

“So that day I went to go get my treat out of the love box and there was a bunch of, like, brochures,” Kady said.

“My dad was kind of a man’s man. He said, ‘Yeah, read that. That’s what I have. They told me today.’ He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and prostate cancer.”

Larry Pooler beat the cancer, but there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. His health began a gradual and inexorable decline.

Kady also had a younger sister, Kirsten, with a learning disability.

She spent long periods with both of them — such as when she helped Kirsten graduate high school by getting her through seven on-line courses in six weeks, just beating the start date of a California law that would make it impossible for her sister to get that diploma.

Pooler pulled off this balancing act until July of 2009, when her father was moved to a full care facility and she decided to leave the tour.

Pooler wound up being accepted into the Teach for America program and assigned to Kennedy High, an inner-city school in Richmond, as a special ed teacher.

Meanwhile, Pooler’s younger brother, Kyle King, was blossoming into a promising basketball player at Cardinal Newman. (This year he started for the Cardinals team that played in the CIF Division 4 championship game.)

When her Teach for America stint was done, Pooler was surprised to get a job offer teaching algebra at Newman. She leapt at the chance, and also served as head coach of the girls’ tennis team and an assistant under Tony Greco with the boys’ team.

She loved the community she found at the school and enjoyed working with young athletes. But when her father finally succumbed to Parkinson’s in January of 2012, Pooler felt a small longing inside.

“He was always her biggest tennis fan and the one who introduced her to tennis,” said Pooler’s mom, Theresa Coey. “Kady’s dad had always wanted her to return to tennis, and after he passed, Kady felt stronger than ever about fulfilling her own dreams.”

Pooler worked up the courage to tell principal Graham Rutherford she was quitting in December.

It was a difficult moment, not only for Pooler and the Cardinal Newman administration, but for the players who would be losing her.

Pooler worried they would resent her or feel betrayed. Instead, she found a wave of support.

“I was happy for her,” said Newman senior Marigrace Scrivenich. “I had talked to her a couple times and asked her if she’d ever want to get back into it. She said she would. So I was ecstatic for her when she made the decision. Instantly, you’d see her around, and when people would say ‘I’m happy for you,’ she’d get a smile on her face. You could see how the opportunity changed her perspective.”

Pooler joined the circuit in January, dedicating the season to her father.

If you think this is the part where we cue the triumphal music and tell you that Pooler shot to the top of the rankings, we apologize. It has been a predictably grueling endeavor.

Pooler simply isn’t as quick around the court as she used to be, and takes longer to recover from aches and pains. After playing in two tournaments, she tore her plantar fascia and had to take time off for physical therapy. She has learned the joys of regular icing and stretching.

And yet she has done all right. Pooler won the doubles championship (along with partner Noelle Hickey) at a tournament on the island of Guadeloupe, and reached the semifinals at a tournament in Mexico. She leaves today for an event in Alabama, and hopes to go straight from there to a tournament in Thailand.

Her coach at ASU, Sheila McInerney, acknowledges Pooler’s skill level, but says it’s her mentality that gives Pooler a chance to succeed in the cutthroat world of professional tennis.

“It’s a hard life,” McInerney said. “To be honest with you, certain people on tour would maybe want to be doing something else if they could, but maybe they don’t have a college degree or they don’t have the confidence to leave. Someone like Kady, she’s 100 percent. Athletics and the lifestyle it entails, you have to embrace it. I think Kady is really embracing it.”

Pooler is currently ranked No. 850 in the world in doubles — well below her career-best ranking of 459, attained in June of 2008, but certainly a solid start, especially considering she doesn’t have a regular partner.

But Pooler has obstacles beyond her age, the biggest being money. In and out of the sport for more than five years, she had to start from scratch on sponsorships. And playing in the WTA’s lower rung, the International Tennis Federation, the financial rewards are minimal. After winning that doubles tournament in Guadeloupe, plus making it to the quarterfinals in singles, her payoff after taxes and fees came to less than $500.

No way can that cover Pooler’s expenses, which include travel, hotel, food, dues and, of course, all those busted strings. So she cuts corners.

She frequently gets to events the day before play starts, while most competitors give themselves a few days to acclimate.

When she’s home in Sonoma County — she lives with Kirsten in a condo in Healdsburg — Pooler makes ends meet by giving private lessons.

Ideally, that time would be spent practicing. Until only recently she couldn’t afford a coach, so she got practice partners or her fitness trainer to tape her, or at least watch her strokes and comment.

Pooler knows that at 27 she doesn’t have a long time to develop a pro career. That said, she isn’t putting a time limit on it. And perhaps to her surprise, she has found that age brings with it a few advantages.

“I am smarter about the game, I think from coaching,” Pooler said. “… I know there is so much more to life. I don’t live and die on every single match — even though each match is so important, because time is of the essence for me. I know that if I lose, life still goes on.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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