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Court Jesters No More : 49ers Volley Their Way Past UCLA's Tennis Supremacy

February 26, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

Most of them are ragtag. There is a talented Swede, but nobody wanted him either. Their coach took a chance on all of them, and now they own the greatest victory in Cal State Long Beach tennis history.

For the 49ers, the memory of that day last week at UCLA is still fresh and delicious. Although UCLA fans screamed "choke," they hit their overheads anyway and handed the Bruins a 5-4 loss, their first defeat at Olympic Stadium in three years and 50 matches.

"Beating UCLA was something I've dreamed about," said 49er senior captain Brian Gillette, who had teamed with Pat Crow to win the deciding doubles match. "Like winning the World Series in the seventh game."

The 49ers went into that match ranked 15th in the nation. UCLA was third. It was a case, said 49er Coach Larry Easley, of a hungry team "knocking off the rich guys."

"We don't get the top-ranked players here," Easley said. "Our two Swedes are not top-ranked in Sweden. Our No. 2 man, Greg Failla, was 99th in juniors. None of the Pac-6 teams would touch him; they tend to go after Top 20 players. That leaves the opportunity for me to grab junior-college transfers and lower-ranked players I think will mature."

The 49ers followed their first-ever UCLA victory with easy wins against San Diego State and U.S. International University to improve their record to 9-1. Their only loss was to top-ranked USC.

"It's kind of a novelty for us to have a good team," Easley said.

But it might not be a novelty much longer. Five telephone calls also followed the UCLA match, Easley said, from players who previously had not been interested in coming to CSULB.

Fifteen minutes before Saturday's noon match with USIU, the players pack into Easley's office, a shed already crowded with two couches and awkward machines that string racquets and shoot balls. Squeegee handles lean against a small window. The walls hold plaques, clippings and Boris Becker posters.

The opponents are discussed: "I remember him from juniors, he has a pretty big serve but is kinda slow." . . . "His backhand is all slice." . . . "He's terrible, a guy from University of Redlands beat him with a hangover."

In the small world of tennis, few are strangers.

As his players spill into the sun, Easley calls after them: "If they're bad, let's take them off the court fast. No hacking around."

Richard Bergh, the 49ers' No. 1 singles player but whom Easley does not need on this day, watches his teammates warm up and says he wishes that he was playing--not USIU but John McEnroe. Now.

A 19-year-old sophomore ranked fourth nationally among college players, Bergh says he will turn pro after this season.

"He is one of the very few kids you can bet will make it in the pros," Easley said.

When Bergh was 7 in Karlskoga, Sweden, home of the Nobel Prize, he had a T-shirt with Bjorn Borg's picture on it. "Borg was an idol for all of us," he said.

But Bergh, who lacked consistency and confidence, was not even ranked in Sweden until he was 18. And then, only ninth. CSULB was the only school that contacted him.

Now, having matured under Easley, the left-handed Bergh this season has become consistent, confident and undefeated--one of his victories was over No. 2-ranked Tim Leach of USC.

"He's probably the cockiest player in the nation," Gillette said of Bergh.

When Bergh came to Long Beach last year, the combination of being Swedish, blond and a tennis player was too much for some of the campus women to resist, Gillette said, and they would descend on his dorm late at night. Now he has a girlfriend, although he wishes she could cook and knit like the women back home.

The 49ers have no fancy stadium. Weathered bleachers face a tree-bordered corridor of six courts. The top players are on court No. 1. At the end, watched only by the birds, are the No. 6 guys.

On the courts of pale green and flowerpot red, the one-on-one duels begin, so brilliant in clarity under the sun as to be almost hypnotic. And the 60 or so heads in the stands indeed move back and forth, following the yellow balls spinning across the nets.

It is an atmosphere pierced only by the players' grunts, profane outbursts in various languages and frustrated wails.

Easley, wearing a beard and a blue warm-up suit, walks from court to court, surveying his collection of late bloomers through dark glasses. He is 38 and in his third season at CSULB. A former player at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he has taught tennis for 22 years, mostly as a club pro. He is thankful to be away from the demanding parents of junior players, away from having to watch kids get spanked on the court.

On court No. 2 is Patrick Hultgren, the 49ers' other Swede whom Easley says is in college to get, unlike Bergh, an education. Hultgren is struggling against Robert Soneru, who curses in Romanian.

Gillette, though, is having an easy time on the third court and does not need to be his usual tempestuous self. He looks over and encourages Hultgren: "C'mon, Patrick, right now, pump it up."

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