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."