Since 1977, when Georgia coach Dan Magill made the NCAA tennis tournament a fixture in Athens, such recent champions as John McEnroe, Tim Mayotte and Mikael Pernfors have said that they consider winning before the wildly partisan Bulldog crowd to be among their most prized accomplishments. But this year's edition of what may be the most grueling tennis event in the world—nine days of two and sometimes three matches a day on hard courts—may have set new standards for inhospitable raucousness.
On Tuesday of last week the "Rope-a-Dope Dawgs," as associate coach Manuel Diaz dubbed the fourth-seeded host team, won their second team title in three years by defeating first-seeded Southern Cal 5-4 in the semifinals and sixth-seeded UCLA 5-1 in the finals. During the five days of the team competition, crowds of several thousand saw to it that playing the Dawgs at Henry Feild Stadium was about as much fun as playing the football Dawgs in Sanford Stadium. The fans' rowdy behavior raised howls from a number of coaches. The vanquished claimed that the crowd noise, particularly the institutionalized Bulldog "woof, woof, woof" chants and strategically timed cries of "choke," reduced their players to tapioca. It was time, said several coaches, for the NCAA to look for another place to hold the tournament.
"Some of my guys played against Georgia like they were doped," said USC coach Dick Leach, whose Trojans went 30-0 in the regular season and beat Georgia in a tournament in Alabama. "These are 20-year-old kids—not necessarily very tough. The championship should be held in a place where the players decide who wins it, not the people in the stands."
By Thursday, the second day of the individual competition, Leach had reached his breaking point. In eight years at USC he has never won a national championship, and this was perhaps his best team ever. With his dreams of a team crown dashed. Leach was hopeful that his No. 1 player, his son, Rick, could win the individual title. But at the hands of Furman's Ned Caswell, who received vociferous crowd support from his fellow Southerners, father and son Leach suffered their second disappointment of the week. When Caswell's supporters continued to heckle Rick as he gathered his equipment, he cracked, cursing Athens and its people.
Rick then heard a Georgia substitute player named Tim Ruotolo suggest that this might be a good time for him to leave town. Leach pushed Ruotolo and threatened to hit him with his racket. "I'll break this over your head, man," said Leach, ignoring the fact that he had already fractured the frame by slamming it on the court after match point.
Dick led his son away, but not before saying, "We've been taking this crap for five days. You're all a bunch of sickos." In the parking lot Dick added, "All Southerners can go to hell." To which a fan retorted, "Same to you." Rick, who theretofore had been considered a consummate sportsman, pushed over a newspaper vending machine and then climbed on the hood of the fan's car. As he brandished one of his rackets, he yelled, "Come on, you want me to kill you?" He was then restrained by campus police. Athens tennis fans hadn't seen such a display of spleen since 1978, when a Stanford freshman named McEnroe swung rackets at ball boys and ordered Southern matrons to shut up as he led the Cardinal to the team championship and then won the individual title for himself.
"A lot of stuff built up and I just couldn't take it anymore," said a contrite Rick the next day. "Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong this week."
Although the incident cast a shadow over the tournament, most coaches deemed it as successful as ever. "I'm sorry to see some of my colleagues going berserk with frustration," said Stanford coach Dick Gould, whose Cardinal team beat Georgia last year en route to its eighth team championship, six of which have been won in Athens. "I feel for them. Yes, Georgia has a home-court advantage, but it can be overcome. Adversity is part of athletics. When you overcome it, the victory becomes that much more meaningful."
As one might expect, Magill agrees. "If a tennis player wants to be considered as great an athlete as a baseball or football player, he's got to have steel nerves, too. I can't help it if we have a crowd advantage. They want us to put on a good event, and we've done that."
Actually, despite the boisterous crowds, tennis people love Athens. It is the only place in the country where the NCAA tournament could draw such numbers. Furthermore, the efficiency with which Magill and his staff run 20 schools through the team competition, as well as 64 players through the singles draw and 32 through the doubles, is legendary. Magill also does things like making sure the courts are resurfaced every other year and having a sorority play host to each team.