The Student Activities Center is full of shrieks at 9 p.m. A rambunctious group of six is having a club meeting, and enjoying it like they’re in a food-less Olive Garden commercial. The rest of the building is empty and dim, and has been since the sun sank.
As the laughter continues, a tall man enters through the side doors. He carries two Babolat tennis rackets in his left hand. His face is tanned and tired.
Krzysztof Kwinta is 32 years old and gives the impression that he doesn’t press a snooze button in the morning.
“I just went to a Cosmic Gate concert last night. That’s going to backfire over the next few days, sleeping-wise,” he said.
“I’ve been trying to work out three or four times a week on the beach at 5:30 in the morning.”
Kwinta has been at UCLA since 2003. He played for UCLA’s 2005 national championship tennis team under coach Billy Martin. In 2007, Martin hired him to be his assistant coach.
“It’s a dream job,” Kwinta said. “Especially in this competitive environment. It’s the greatest school ever.”
But he is reticent about his dream job.
When asked if he wants to follow in the footsteps of his mentor and coach for the rest of his life, he balks as though he has never considered it before.
His eyebrows dart upward as if he’s trying to picture himself in a windbreaker two decades from now.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Kwinta was born in Poland in 1980. He doesn’t remember a lot about his first nine years of life under a Communist government.
He collected newspapers and aluminum caps from milk bottles that his family could redeem for food vouchers.
“I was fortunate to be under the protective umbrella of my parents. My father was a journalist so we had a little bit better life,” he said.
“I didn’t have it that bad. It’s just hard to think of that right now, you know, because you live in America.”
Eventually he developed a knack for ping-pong. He played in his friends’ basements, and it was a cheap hobby.
He is modest about how good he was, but confirms that he was one of those kids who stood yards away from the table when he walloped the ball.
His table tennis skills naturally led him to full court tennis. Because of his upbringing, he didn’t start playing until he was 12.
“Tennis was a luxury sport that not many people played. There was no knowledge about it, no facilities, no yellow fuzzy tennis balls,” he said. “I got to it late.”
After a successful run on the Polish national team, Tennessee recruited him. After one year in Knoxville, he transferred to UCLA.
His career in Westwood was superb, and he closed out his time as a Bruin with a win in the clinching match for a national title.
But Kwinta is still haunted by tennis demons. He thinks about his career with regret often.
“Probably once an hour,” Kwinta said, laughing. “As far as my pro career, I never really tried. I never really tried my skills against the best. That’s one regret that I’m probably going to take to the grave with me.”
This regret is why he is on the fence about his future in tennis.
“Maybe it’s something that is holding me back a little bit. You know, to just start something else … because you just think about “˜What if, what if?’ Especially when all of your friends that you played with are out on the tour playing and doing well. And you’re thinking, “˜Wow, that should be me. I should be out there competing,” he said, while spinning a racket in his hands.
“He’s always on the court. Whether he’s coaching little kids, or at practice, or training for a doubles event,” said Raymond Ajoc, a first-year manager for the tennis team, “he’s always trying to better himself.”
The question then became: does staying around the game help get over the regret or does it aggravate it?
“Probably the best thing would be to completely switch areas. Go into finance or something, and just completely cut yourself off from tennis,” he said.
Martin understands the angst that can build in a former tennis player now bound to the whistle.
“I had to get away from tennis at 26 because of my hips. I was (ticked off) when I was younger, when it became apparent I wasn’t going to be able to play tennis forever,” Martin said.
“I was able to go back to school and kind of get away from the game for a while. It was a good thing for me. Your view about it kind of changes as you get older.”
Martin chose to come back, and has devoted the majority of his life to teaching the game.
Kwinta did the same.
“I love the game. I love seeing these guys improve and mature and strive for goals. I’m glad I’m a part of it,” he said.
But sometimes, he pictures himself in a more conventional occupation.
He talks about going into advertising or taking the GMAT in order to move in another direction.
“I’m thinking possibly of going back to school,” he said. “(Tennis) might be the trap that you have. I don’t want to say “˜scared’ to explore other areas, but you feel comfortable. It’s hard, you know? It’s your love and your passion and your hate, and everything all together.”
In the end, Kwinta sums up his future in the game with two words: “We’ll see.”
As the hour approaches 11 p.m., the Student Activities Center is still and void of rambunctious students.
Kwinta exits the building and heads west down Bruin Walk, carrying two tennis rackets in his left hand.