One of the finalists in the NCAA men's individual championships, Texas sophomore Steve Bryan, was relaxing last Saturday afternoon on a hotel balcony in Indian Wells, Calif. As he stared out on the shadowy splendor of the Santa Rosa Mountains, he chose his words thoughtfully. "I win because I want to win more than my opponents," said Bryan. "When I'm down love-five, I don't give up. Sometimes they do. If I lose, I go on and try to do better. Sometimes they don't." Such determination helps explain Bryan's 22-2 regular-season record for the Longhorns and his rise to No. 3 in the national collegiate rankings.
Several hours later, UCLA junior Jason Netter, who would be Bryan's opponent in Sunday's final, was confessing that after getting blown out in the first round of the 1989 NCAA tournament, he had thrown his eight rackets into a closet in his grandmother's house in Beverly Hills and slammed the door. "I decided that I'd see if tennis is what I wanted to go after," said Netter. "I'd see if I missed it. If not, I wouldn't go back."
Netter spent the next three months working as a gofer in his grandfather's small movie production company in Hollywood, never touching a racket. He then concluded that he did indeed miss tennis. While absence made the heart grow fonder, it certainly didn't help his game. Netter went on to have a lackluster 1990 season, finishing with a 10-15 record in dual meets, and he had a disappointing No. 30 collegiate ranking going into the NCAAs, which left him well below the seeded favorites.
So it appeared to be a mismatch—the hardworking, mentally tough and terribly earnest Bryan against the maybe-I'll-work-hard-and-maybe-I-won't Netter—and it was. In just one hour, 17 minutes, under the hot desert sun, Bryan ripped Netter 6-3, 6-4, with a blazing demonstration of cunning and consistency and became the first sophomore to win the singles crown at the NCAA tennis championships since Greg Holmes of Utah won the title in 1983. Afterward Netter said that he "didn't play that badly."
That's true, which is a measure of Bryan's supremacy. Bryan and Netter can each look into a mirror and see the other, because both prefer to stick to the baseline, coming to net only as a last resort. Indeed, Bryan played serve and volley on only four points (three of which he won) in the entire match, while Netter didn't try it even once. Neither player brags on his serve and with good reason, but Bryan made the best of his by knocking in 80% of his first balls.
Normally Netter has a solid backhand, but on Sunday it turned on him. He committed 18 unforced errors off that wing alone. All told, Netter finished with 33 unforced errors to Bryan's 16. "I thought I played well, and I don't think Jason did," said Bryan.
As often happens in tennis, the match was influenced by an off-court occurrence. Late on Saturday afternoon Bryan discussed strategy with Longhorn assistant coach Edgar Giffening, who had watched Netter beat Conny Falk of Miami 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 in the semifinals. Bryan, who had already won his semi, decided not to scout Netter's match because, in his view, "It's not important. I'm going to play my game."
Giffening, however, advised Bryan to diversify his backcourt game. "You are going to have to change the pace a lot," said Giffening. "You cannot let him get in a groove."
Bryan listened. Although he would prefer to stay on the baseline until the cows come home-fitting for a Texan (he's from Katy)—Bryan is not so smug that he won't change. In the final he repeatedly hit looping backhands to mix up the pace, a tactic that had Netter talking to himself in unfavorable terms. Netter later said, "I couldn't help it. I got a little too impatient."
After having held serve to open the second set, Netter lost his best chance to get back into the match in the next game. With Bryan serving at deuce, Netter hit a screaming crosscourt forehand winner to reach break point. Bryan, however, answered with a backhand crosscourt winner and promptly put the game away. That backhand produced the first of 10 straight points for Bryan, who was never threatened again.
Once upon a time, virtually every top American player went to college—at least for a year or two—and thus played in the NCAA tournament. That's no longer the case. While there are 24 American men ranked among the world's Top 100, the most promising of the bunch-Andre Agassi, 20; Michael Chang, 18; Jim Courier, 19; and Pete Sampras, 18—never set foot on a college campus. John McEnroe, who won the NCAA title as a freshman in 1978, his only season of college tennis, is the last singles champion to become No. 1 in the world. Since then, the only NCAA champ to climb even as high as No. 7 is 1981 winner Tim Mayotte, who reached that level two years ago and is No. 15 today.
Yet not everyone has given up hope that college tennis can still produce world-beaters from the U.S. Says Princeton coach David Benjamin, "College helps a young player mature and develop in the crucible of competition in a reasonable manner before he goes into the jungle." Trouble is, these days the jungle out there is being ruled by 17-and 18-year-olds who can whip the collegiate champion.
One tournament never provides a clear window on the future, but everyone saw enough in Indian Wells to conclude that another McEnroe was not among the 64 participants. Bryan is a perfect case in point. He has a solid forehand and a big backhand, but neither makes up for that deficient serve. Bryan's avowed goal for himself is most telling. "I can see myself in the Top 30 in the pros," he says.
To be sure, that would be no small achievement. What's more, last year's 30th-ranked player, Jakob Hlasek of Czechoslovakia, earned a more-than-tidy $399,849 in prize money. Still, Grand Slam titles are not won by players shooting for the Top 30.
When the tournament began, several other players seemed to be hotter prospects than either finalist. Top-seeded Todd Martin, a sophomore at Northwestern, was cruising until Stanford freshman Jared Palmer—whom most observers think has the best overall game among collegians—beat him 6-2, 6-4 in the quarterfinals. After the match, Martin described Palmer as "the most talented player in college."
Well, he was until the semifinals at least. Bryan routed Palmer 6-0, 6-1. The first set, in which Palmer won only three points, took just 17 minutes. The No. 3 seed, Jose Luis Noriega of the University of San Diego, via Peru, looked as if he could go all the way, but Bryan defeated him 2-6, 7-6, 7-5 in the quarters. Another Stanford freshman, second-seeded Jonathan Stark, was also getting raves, until Netter eliminated him 6-4, 6-3.
But it was Bryan's show. In the moments following the final, the new NCAA champ finally allowed himself a small smile. "I came here to win, and I won," Bryan said. "I'm proud."