California, blessed with large quantities of people, sunshine and courts, counts tennis players as one of its foremost crops. They grow healthy and ripe out of the Plexipave and Laykold just as the grapes and avocados grow out of the soil. The juiciest of them are harvested by coaches at California universities, and, as if that weren't enough, talented kids from all over the world flock to the state in search of stiffer competition. The result has been that only once in the last 17 years has a non-California school won the NCAA tennis championship.
Judging from what happened last week at the National Collegiate Tennis Classic in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (near Palm Springs), the state's supremacy is going to end only when Duluth, Minn. becomes the citrus capital of the world. In a near duplication of last year's NCAA finish, UCLA won with 16 points, Stanford and USC tied for second with 15 apiece.
Of course, the National Collegiate is no more a "classic" than all those holiday basketball tournaments. How can the second annual anything be a classic? What it is is a gathering of 16 teams to start off the college tennis season and a chance for the snowbelt players to thaw out.
"It was five below back in Champaign with a wind-chill factor of 20 below when we left," said Illinois Coach Bruce Shuman. "So you can see how we appreciate this."
The tournament is the brainchild of Rex Darling, who coached tennis at Eastern Illinois for 29 years before moving to the desert. (Actually, what he is best known for is having been half of that great—and sugary—doubles team back in the '30s at Illinois State, Rex Darling and Charles Sweet.) The National Collegiate format is the same as the NCAA tournament's: singles and doubles with a team element mixed in by awarding a school one point per victory. The off-court format is even better than the NCAA's: free lodging at good resort hotels and free meals at good restaurants.
Oklahoma City U. was one of the teams invited this year, but, according to Darling, the Chiefs had to cancel when their Australian mainstays decided they wanted to go home for the Christmas holidays. Nevertheless, there were a number of foreigners on and around the courts at the plush Mission Hills Country Club. Most of them were enrolled at Pepperdine, the school with the lovely seaside campus at Malibu.
Pepperdine is coached by Larry Riggs, son of male chauvinist Bobby, and he has figured out that since he can't out-recruit UCLA, USC and Stanford for the nation's top-ranked juniors he had better look to foreign shores. Joao Soares of Brazil was twice an All-America at Pepperdine and then turned pro instead of playing out his eligibility, but Riggs still has a mini-United Nations General Assembly every time he holds a practice: Eddie Edwards, once the No. 4 junior in South Africa; Leo Palin, 11 times a junior champion in Finland; Dean Graham, another South African; and Sivagnanam (Shots) Suresh, a doctor's son from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), where he was national champion at 16.
Also at Mission Hills were Israelis Reuben Porges of Duke and Ronnie Lerner of Arizona State, neither of whom got past the first round of singles. Since a Peruvian, a Chilean, an Ecuadorian and two Mexicans have won eight NCAA singles titles, it seemed strange that there were no Latin Americans on hand.
It was also strange, on Thursday, when raindrops began splattering the courts. Just as if the Illinois contingent had brought along the weather in its van, it drizzled all day, canceling every match and embarrassing the tournament's co-sponsors, the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and the local newspaper, The Desert Sun. The Chamber had given each player and coach a pair of sunglasses at a welcoming banquet Wednesday night.
Sunglasses were not in demand on Friday, either, but neither were umbrellas, and tournament director Darling and Mission Hills tennis pro Dennis Ralston were able to cram two days of matches into one so that the "classic" could end on Saturday as planned and not have to buck the televised Super Bowl for attention. They also were worried about the Brigham Young players, who are not allowed to play on Sunday.
Going into the final day it was a familiar story: UCLA, USC and Stanford bunched together like Siamese triplets. That was doubly discouraging to the other schools because each of the Big Three had arrived without its best players—Ferdi Taygan and Van Winitsky of UCLA, Bruce Manson of USC and Bill Maze and Matt Mitchell of Stanford. If the NCAA's new limit of five tennis scholarships per school was meant to spread the talent around, it has not worked so far.
Saturday was the way it is supposed to be in Palm Springs and environs: bright sunshine, the snowcapped Santa Rosa Mountains looming over the flat desert, prospective condominium buyers scurrying about. Sweaters off, sunglasses on. It seemed a bright day for USC, too, especially because the Trojans' Chris Lewis and Andy Lucchesi were the top-seeded doubles team. Lewis, an A student who grew up "exactly three-eighths of a mile" from the UCLA campus, had been upset early in singles and was anxious to redeem himself. USC also had a good chance in singles with non-scholarship player Charles (Buzz) Strode, a hard-hitting husky blond.
After Lewis and Lucchesi won their semifinal match from San Jose State and Strode won his over UCLA's Jon Paley, the day seemed brighter yet for USC. All the Trojans had to do was win one of the finals and they would at least tie for the title. But the day grew cooler as the afternoon wore on. Sweaters went back on and USC's hopes died.
The shocker came from two 18-year-old Stanford freshmen, Peter Rennert of Great Neck, N.Y., and Lloyd Bourne of Pasadena, Calif. They had played together in only one previous tournament, yet they whipped Lewis-Lucchesi 6-4, 3-6, 7-6. Their win was especially noteworthy because their coach, Dick Gould, was away giving clinics in the Caribbean.
That left UCLA, USC and Stanford with 15 points apiece, and the singles final to decide the title—USC's Strode vs. UCLA junior Tony Graham, who, according to Bruin Coach Glenn Bassett, relies "mainly on steadiness and hard work." Steady Graham, who has only a partial grant-in-aid, vs. Strode the slammer. It was downright chilly by the time they began play. The linesmen stood up as often as possible and moved around to uncongeal their blood.
Graham, who had beaten Suresh 7-5, 6-3 in the semis, showed more than just an ability to get balls back. He played well and hit more than his share of flashing winners to take the first set, then saw Strode go from 4-5 in the second to win three straight games and even the match. It seemed that Strode had the momentum to storm right on to the title, but Graham surprised almost everybody, including his coach, and won the third set rather easily, taking the match 6-4, 5-7, 6-2 to give UCLA that delicious 16th point.
UCLA and USC have now won one National Collegiate apiece. They have each won 12 NCAA titles. Last year the NCAA tournament ended UCLA 21, USC 21, Stanford 20. This year the NCAAs are at Georgia in late May and no doubt the three California rivals will again end up separated by the thickness of a string of gut.