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As Usual, It's UCLA, USC or Stanford

May 19, 1985|Mike Penner

Sure, the University of Georgia has defending NCAA singles champion Mikael Pernfors and the always considerable home-court advantage.

Sure, SMU has rebuilt its program under Coach Dennis Ralston and now boasts the premier freshman player in the country, Richey Reneberg.

And, sure, Pepperdine looms as a threat--with a lineup including Kelly Jones, a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, and Marty Laurendeau, who had 22 straight victories earlier this year.

But if you're looking for a legitimate favorite to win the NCAA men's tennis team championship this week at Athens, Ga., look no further than the Pac-10.

Or better yet, make that the Pac-3: UCLA, USC and Stanford. In college tennis, they're also known as the Big Three.

They may play the NCAA tournament annually in the Southeast, but the balance of power in men's collegiate tennis has been dramatically tilted to the West Coast for the past four decades.

Thirty-three times in the last 39 years, the NCAA title has been brought back to California by either UCLA, USC or Stanford. An even more impressive statistic: UCLA, USC and Stanford, among themselves, have won the NCAA title 24 times in the last 25 years. (The answer to the trivia question is Trinity College, in 1972.)

And, since 1970, it's been all UCLA and Stanford, with the exception of 1972 and 1976, when USC shared the title with . . . yep, UCLA.

Last spring, it was UCLA edging Stanford in the final by the narrowest of margins, 5-4. And as the 1985 tournament opened Saturday, guess which teams were seeded 1-2-3?

A: 1. UCLA; 2. USC; 3. Stanford.

"There's a real domination in college tennis," UCLA Coach Glenn Bassett said. And the reason for it, he believes, is remarkably simple.

"If you win," he said, "kids kinda like that. They want to go to schools that win."

There's more to it than just that, of course. The mild California weather, where ground strokes can be practiced year-round, is a major factor. So is the state's socio-economic condition. It costs money to teach a kid to play this sport.

Through the years, the kids who play it best tend to matriculate at UCLA, USC and Stanford.

Here, specifically, is why these three teams are favored this year at Athens:

UCLA (28-3)--Bassett insists that he has no great players, and indeed, there is no Jimmy Connors or Arthur Ashe or Charles Pasarell or Billy Martin in the 1985 Bruin lineup. And the squad that won the 1984 championship suffered two major losses when Chuck Willenborg transferred to Miami (Fla.) and Jim Pugh decided to turn professional in January.

But UCLA is back, top-seeded, because it can throw waves and waves of capable players at you.

The key word at Westwood is depth. Michael Kures (23-1) and Jeff Klaparda (16-7) are ranked fifth and 10th in the nation, respectively, but the Bruins win because of their lesser-knowns. Filling out the lower portion of the lineup are freshman Brad Pearce (23-3), Mark Basham (18-8), Brett Greenwood (27-3) and David Livingston (13-8).

With that type of singles production, UCLA had 20 of 28 dual-match victories clinched before the doubles had even started.

The Bruins split with Stanford (winning, 8-1, in Westwood) and took two of three from USC. Only one thing appears capable of getting them off the track this week--Kures' right knee. It hasn't been right since the end of April, when he strained it after upsetting No. 1-ranked Dan Goldie of Stanford.

"It's not 100%," Bassett said. "He seems to still be babying it. He's going to play--I just don't know how well."

The Bruins, once again, may need their depth to bail them out.

USC (31-3)--The Trojans, with a roster glutted with talent, figured to win easily at Athens last year. They didn't. Then they lost Matt Anger to the pros.

But once again, USC comes to Georgia looking like the paper champion. When it comes to numbers and ratings, the Trojans have the credentials.

USC's strength rests with its doubles. Coach Dick Leach has the nation's No. 1-ranked pair (Jorge Lozano-Todd Witzken), as well as the No.7 combination (Rick Leach-Tim Pawsat) at his disposal.

Witzken is also a premier singles player. He is 19-8 and is ranked No. 4 in the country. Witzken is supported by No. 15 Lozano (20-6), No. 17 Leach (21-9), Pawsat (19-4) and Ric Bengtson (28-2).

USC will probably face Stanford in the semifinals. The Trojans swept the Cardinal in two dual matches this season. So, a USC-UCLA final--what fun--could again be in the making.

Stanford (23-3)--Then again, it's hard to overlook what Stanford possesses--particularly in singles. The Cardinal has two of the nation's top three players (No. 1 Dan Goldie and No. 3 Jim Grabb) plus three others ranked in the Top 55--No. 14 Derrick Rostagno, No. 33 Eric Rosenfeld and No. 52 John Letts.

Coach Dick Gould's squad won both the Intercollegiate Tennis Coaches Assn. Indoor team championships and the Thatcher Cup at the Ojai Invitational tournament. At Ojai, Goldie won both the singles and doubles titles, teaming with Rosenfeld for the latter.

The Cardinal also has a freshman named McEnroe in its lineup. The last time that happened, in 1978, Stanford won it all.

Younger brother Patrick may not be another John, but if you like omens. . . .

Consecutive NCAA singles championships are as rare as NCAA team titles won by schools outside the Pac-3. Only two players have accomplished that feat since World War II--Tulane's Ham Richardson (1953-54) and USC's Dennis Ralston (1963-64).

Georgia's Pernfors is attempting to become the third. The 1984 champion isn't the favorite--he's seeded second, behind Goldie--but he has a firm backer in Bassett.

"In my mind, it has to be Pernfors," Bassett said. "He's on his home courts and these courts are very slow. They're just to his liking.

"There's no way he can lose here unless someone plays unbelievably well. And that player is going to have to play better than what I've seen so far this year."

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