Somehow, the opening of the college season always seems to get lost in the tennis shuffle. Most of the space in tennis publications is devoted to such subjects as John McEnroe's plans, Martina Navratilova's new workout, Chris Evert Lloyd's marital ups and downs, or yet another up-and-coming 12-year-old.
College tennis? It barely merits more than a few paragraphs.
Wait, there's one exception. In almost every story about the lack of American players at the top, the college game is singled out as the villain. College-bashing seems to be alive and well.
Yet, the game is alive and well, too, particularly in Southern California. The problem is that no one really knows about it these days, even here, where college tennis has traditionally been strong.
This year, local teams are ranked in the top three spots, according to the men's intercollegiate poll. USC is ranked No. 1 and UCLA and Pepperdine are tied for second. Cal State Long Beach, No. 16, and UC Irvine, No. 22, are expected to move up in the rankings.
A closer look at the top local teams:
USC--On paper, the Trojans appear formidable. There's Rick Leach, who is ranked No. 2 nationally and reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament in 1986. There's Luke Jensen, who plays behind Leach and is right behind him in the rankings, too, at No. 3.
There are two other Trojans, too, among the top 25: John Carras, No. 22, and Scott Melville, No. 23.
But things haven't gone as smoothly as expected for USC. The Trojans barely beat Cal State Long Beach in a recent dual match, 5-4. Leach has already lost three times, to Pepperdine freshman Andrew Sznaidjer in a tournament, to Long Beach's Richard Bergh and to Georgia's Phil Johnson. The issue of local supremacy should be settled when USC plays UCLA on March 14 and April 11.
UCLA--Although the Bruins were tied with Pepperdine in the rankings, it was no contest when the teams met last month. UCLA won, 8-1, losing only at the No. 2 singles spot. UCLA had won its other five dual matches, 9-0.
Coach Glenn Bassett had wondered whether his young team--one senior, a junior and four sophomores in the top six--might be too inexperienced to contend for a national title this year. His players, though, may have answered that question with the victory over the Waves.
All-American Dan Nahirny, a sophomore from New Jersey, had a significant early victory when he defeated Sznaidjer, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4. Tim Triguerio, who is playing No. 2 singles, is coming off a so-so performance last fall.
Pepperdine--Yes, there's yet another Canadian playing for the Waves. Sznaidjer is the latest in the long line of imports from north of the border. Judging from early results, he could be the best.
After playing the professional circuit last fall as an amateur, Sznaidjer reached the final of the National Collegiate Tennis tournament in his first competition for Pepperdine. He followed that performance by earning a wild-card spot in the Pilot Pen tournament, defeating Leach, 6-3, 6-4.
Pepperdine's team depth has been hurt because junior Robby Weiss was ailing for almost two months
Cal State Long Beach--Long Beach should move up in the rankings after giving USC a scare. Bergh provided the first surprise of the college season with his upset of Leach. Bergh is ranked No. 4, and teammate Greg Failla is No. 36.
Last year, Long Beach edged UC Irvine for the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. title, getting the upper hand in the long rivalry. The year before it was the reverse. Long Beach will play Irvine April 1 and April 21.
UC Irvine--Coach Greg Patton and his players were ready to make travel plans for the NCAA tournament in Athens, Ga., after they defeated sixth-ranked Stanford two weeks ago. Since then, though, the Anteaters have lost consecutive matches to No. 15 California and unranked Georgia Tech.
"I think the gods are wearing Cardinal red," Patton said. "We've been cursed ever since we beat Stanford."
He may have a point. With two key players out with injuries, Irvine promptly lost to Cal, 8-1, the next day.
Sophomore Mark Kaplan, who plays No. 1 singles, has developed quickly, recording victories over 11th-ranked Steve DeVries of Cal and 13th-ranked Kenny Thorne of Georgia Tech. Irvine's top doubles team of Julian Barham and Darren Yates was undefeated before this weekend's action.
The prominent local women's teams continue to remain the same. Only the names of the players have changed. USC, ranked No. 2, has the best chance of overtaking defending team champion Stanford. UCLA, ranked No. 9, also has another good team, but USC's depth makes it the strongest local squad.
A closer look at the women's teams:
USC--The biggest question for the Trojans is whether junior Caroline Kuhlman can recover fully. An old knee injury drove her out of the lineup just before the Riviera Invitational tournament in January.