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.