Last season Pepperdine's Robby Weiss couldn't stay healthy for 16 consecutive tennis matches, much less win them.
Weiss was hampered by tendinitis in a shoulder and knee, a broken thumb and an infection that kept him off the court for six weeks.
"It was very frustrating," said Weiss, a senior public relations major. "Once I'd get over my injury, I'd start playing OK again and something else would happen. I'd be out for a while, lose confidence, lose a few matches--I just couldn't get going."
But this season, Weiss has left 16 straight opponents feeling poorly and has knocked sophomore Andrew Sznajder out of the No. 1 spot on the Pepperdine team. Weiss has not lost since Christmas and has won four consecutive tournaments.
All of this has boosted Weiss' confidence, which doesn't bode well for his competition.
"Robby gets very, very stingy when he is confident," Pepperdine Co-Coach Richard Gallien said.
Weiss, 21, doesn't often come to the net or rely on serving aces. Instead, he consistently keeps the ball in play, testing his opponents mentally.
U. C. Irvine's No. 1 player, Mark Kaplan, who was ranked No. 7 in the nation in preseason by the Intercollegiate Tennis Coaches Assn. (ITCA), was annihilated, 6--0, 6--1, by Weiss on Jan. 29.
"He doesn't do anything and you basically self-destruct and miss everything," Kaplan said.
Last year Weiss concentrated on his volley and his base line game suffered. But this season, Weiss has developed his ground strokes, and a revitalized base line game pressures opponents into mistakes.
"Robby has the best hands of anyone at Pepperdine ever," Gallien said.
USC's Scott Melville, ranked No. 1 in preseason by the ITCA, fell victim to Weiss, 6--3, 3--6, 6--2, in the finals of the Adidas Invitational in Palm Springs on Jan. 23.
"Robby gives no free points," Melville said. "I thought I had him in the second set but he just didn't give up."
With his victory in the Adidas Invitational, Weiss won a berth in the Newsweek Champion's Cup in Palm Springs on Feb. 29-Mar. 6.
"I'd like to win a round or two, pick up some ATP (Assn. of Tennis Professionals) points," which determine world ranking, "and maybe get a chance to play (Mats) Wilander or (Boris) Becker or someone," said Weiss, who grew up in Chicago and began playing tennis at age 6.
Playing just for the professional ranking points is worthwhile, Weiss said, even if he can't accept money prizes.
"If Robby plays Wilander, they'll be out there for two hours," said Gallien, who likes how Weiss' base-line game matches up with Wilander's.
Weiss faced Becker in a tournament three years ago. Becker's aggressive play gave Weiss trouble in the 6--0, 6-2 loss in the first round of the Louisiana--Pacific Invitational. Becker went on to his first American tournament victory.
"A guy like Becker punishes Robby for every mistake," said Weiss' brother, Daniel, 24, who was ranked No. 20 in the nation by the ITCA in 1980 while playing for Northwestern University.
But playing and beating pros is not unfamiliar to Weiss. He beat Aaron Krickstein, who was ranked No. 7 in the world by the ATP in 1984, in 11 of 14 matches in junior tournaments.
Weiss plans to play on the professional tour after he graduates. For now he is concentrating on winning the NCAA title.
Gallien isn't surprised that Weiss has started to outclass his competition.
"If he doesn't seem too excited about winning, it's because he's so used to it," Gallien said. "He's just been waiting for it to happen. He expects to win."