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Tennis : USC's Trophy Tug Turns to Trauma as Trojans Take Opposite Turns

March 22, 1987|Lisa Dillman

The cover of the current USC tennis media guide shows Rick Leach and Caroline Kuhlman, playfully tugging on a trophy at midcourt.

Who's No. 1?

It seemed like a good idea back before the season started. Leach had finished with a No. 1 ranking in the final 1986 Intercollegiate Tennis Coaches Assn. poll and was named Tennis magazine's male player of the year. Kuhlman earned those same honors among the women.

The only thing left for Leach and Kuhlman was to collect one elusive honor--an NCAA singles title.

After starting off slowly, it looks as though Leach is finding his form. Kuhlman, meanwhile, just wants the chance to get started.

Beset by sore knees, she has played one match since Jan. 4. That's right, one singles match.

That was last weekend against UCLA. Kuhlman lost at No. 3 to Jennifer Fuchs, 6-1, 6-2. USC Coach Dave Borelli said afterward that Kuhlman probably wouldn't have played if teammate Mary Norwood hadn't been sick with the flu.

In a sense, Kuhlman's problem is more frustrating than most. She has a chronic case of tendinitis in both knees. It had started in one, then occurred in the other when she started to favor the injured one.

"I really doubt we are going to get Caroline back in the singles lineup this year," Borelli said.

Just what are the Trojans missing with her absence?

--Someone who, as a sophomore, won 30 straight matches before losing in the NCAA team tournament last year. Kuhlman reached the individual quarterfinals, losing to eventual champion Patty Fendick of Stanford.

--A gold medalist in singles at the Goodwill Games last summer in the Soviet Union.

--One who is capable of becoming the best professional women's player ever produced by USC. That's what one of Borelli's assistants said before the tendinitis set in. And, the former Trojans who are on the tour, or have been, are a talented group.

Even before her success of last year, Kuhlman had already made her mark on the pro tour. At the 1985 U.S. Open, she upset then top-15 player, Andrea Temesvari. Kuhlman then reached the round of 16 and came within a few shots of a quarterfinal meeting with Pam Shriver.

Now, for the flip side.

Otis Smith's career at UCLA took a dive when he crashed into a wall and broke his wrist at the 1985 Volvo collegiate tournament.

Twenty weeks after the injury, the doctors removed the cast.

"To be out that long, it was very serious," UCLA Coach Glenn Bassett said. "We weren't sure what would happen to his tennis. It was scary."

Smith removed the cobwebs from his game, though, and eventually resumed playing. To get match-tough, he entered satellite tournaments last fall.

Bassett didn't know what to expect this season. But Smith started at No. 5 singles and earned the No. 1 spot with a championship at the Southern California intercollegiate tournament in early March.

Last weekend, Leach handed Smith just his third loss this year. And, Smith had three set points in the first and served for the second.

"He's just getting progressively better," said Bassett of Smith, who has one more year of eligibility. "I would have to say the injury hurt him a lot more than the team. We were deeper last year. If it had happened this year, losing him would have been a disaster."

A few leftover shots from the recent John McEnroe-Ivan Lendl exhibition at the Forum:

McEnroe, who took an extended leave from the tour because of burnout, apparently believes that Lendl's rigid way of life could eventually lead him to the same condition.

"There's so much more to life than what he is doing," McEnroe said. "You can't keep your eyes closed that long. If he wants to live like that, that's his prerogative."

Lendl thinks some observers may be closing their eyes in regard to McEnroe's comeback.

"We're talking about a comeback, but it's been a year already and he hasn't done anything significant," Lendl said. "He won three tournaments last fall, but until he wins a Grand Slam. . . . "

And, finally, one parting salvo from Mac on why he feels that Lendl isn't improving interest in tennis: "Specifically? I can't say. It's his whole persona. I don't have any desire to talk to him on a human level, and I think that's sad."

At the 1986 French Open, Martina Navratilova boldly predicted that Claudia Porwick would become a star in women's tennis within the next few years.

Navratilova, who had defeated Porwick, 6-3, 6-3, in the third round, observed that the young West German had the game--serve and volley--and the knowledge of what it takes to win.

So what kind of progress has Porwick made since the endorsement? Her development was slowed by surgery on her right wrist last summer.

Porwick, ranked in the low 100s, had lost in the first round in six straight tournaments before the Slims of Arizona two weeks ago. At Scottsdale, she fared better and lost in the third round to Ann Hendrickson.

"I always feel very well about it," Porwick said about Navratilova's remarks. "We will have to see. Maybe (the ranking) would be a little bit better if I didn't have the surgery. It's like now I have to start again. I lost almost half a year because of the surgery. We'll see in two years."

Naturally, Porwick fielded questions about fellow West Germans Steffi Graf and Boris Becker during the tournament in Scottsdale.

Porwick believes that Becker will repeat at Wimbledon this year and that his toughest competition could come from Australia's Pat Cash. But she saved the lavish praise for Graf's game.

"She's the kind of player you meet two times in a century," Porwick said. "I'm not surprised she is playing so well. I think she will be No. 1 at the end of the season. If she has no injuries, she will win the French Open.

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