Heading into the NCAA men’s team tennis tournament Saturday at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., UCLA’s Bruins, the defending national champions, are right where they figure they belong--ranked No. 1.
“I was happy we got No. 1,” Coach Glenn Bassett said. “We’re proud of that.
“But we’re sure no odds-on favorite. There’s so many good teams. We go to the NCAAs and try and get it together.”
Although the coach is cautious in his predictions, however, his players sure aren’t.
“We’re definitely going to win this year,” promised Jeff Klaparda, No. 2 singles player. “We’re gonna take it all. We’re gonna be the only seniors that won it three out of four years.” The Bruins also won the national title in 1982.
Senior David Livingston echoed Klaparda’s sentiments.
“We’re the team to beat,” Livingston said. “We’re gonna win the NCAAs.”
This newly found confidence marks a change from the other time this spring that the Bruins were No. 1. They opened the season in that position, based on last season’s championship.
Then they exposed the weakness of that kind of thinking, losing to USC and Southern Methodist at the National Collegiate Indoor Team Championships at Louisville, Ky.
“We didn’t do too well indoors,” said Bassett, who will be looking for his eighth national title, which would tie him with J.D. Morgan, his mentor and a UCLA legend. “We just didn’t pick those fast courts up at all. We’ve been No. 4 since.”
Until now, that is. After dropping those two matches, the Bruins (28-3) returned to championship form, winning 22 and losing only one. More impressive, they won the Pacific 10 Southern Division title, on the way posting an 8-1 victory over Stanford, No. 1 at the time, and a pair of victories over No. 2 USC.
“What affected us (at the start) was that we lost Jimmy Pugh, a very good player with experience,” Bassett said. Pugh, the No. 3 singles player, joined the professional tour.
“We lost a little confidence in ourselves, but we’ve shaken that off and are ready to go on,” Bassett said. “We got used to not having Pugh. We worked at filling his spot. Sometimes you wonder if we can fill that spot, but we did.”
The Bruins also lost Craig Venter, No. 5 singles player to graduation, however, and No. 6 Chuck Willenborg transferred to Miami of Florida, meaning that half the singles team had to be replaced.
But now having regrouped, this team may be better than last season’s 31-3 championship team.
“Last year we were probably closer,” Livingston said. “We have a better team this year.”
Not only that, the Bruins are a good team on a roll.
“They won it last year, and they’ve been playing very well lately,” said Dick Leach, coach at USC. “One of the top six seeded teams is going to win it. I would bet anything on that. UCLA’s 8-1 victory over Stanford would have to make them the favorite.”
UCLA’s last loss--the only one outdoors--was April 6 against Stanford at Palo Alto, where the Cardinal won, 5-4. “Even though we lost, we thought we had a better team,” Klaparda said.
They underscored that point when they got Stanford on their home court. Only a McEnroe, as in John’s brother Patrick, prevented the Bruins from shutting out the Cardinal April 19, and the next day UCLA defeated California, clinching the Southern Division title.
But the victory over Stanford does not have Bassett thinking that the title is all wrapped up.
“They’re awfully good,” he said of the Cardinal. “They’ve got their whole team back (last year’s NCAA runner-up team). We’re no better than anyone else. But I really do think the winner will come out of those top six teams.”
Those six are UCLA, USC, Stanford, Southern Methodist, Pepperdine and Georgia, but if history means anything, the champion will come from among the top three. UCLA, USC, and Stanford have won 33 of the 38 team championships and 24 of the last 25. The Bruins have won 15 of those, and Bassett has been involved in all but one as player, assistant coach, or head coach.
Bassett said after last year’s title that it was his proudest moment, but he may change his thinking if the Bruins win it again this year.
Livingston thinks he knows why the team did poorly at the start.
“Most of the seniors weren’t playing well,” he said. “All the seniors are playing well now, and that’s the difference.”
Another difference may be the team’s confidence, which may be at an all-time high. The Bruins know that they are good and can’t even envision losing.
“Nobody’s ever a favorite in Athens. Anything can happen,” said Michael Kures, No. 1 singles player, trying to say all the right things.
He just couldn’t help adding, however: “We’ve just been destroying everybody .”
Even the freshmen are more than cautiously optimistic.
“They’re seniors, so I guess they know what they are talking about,” freshman Ken Diller said. Diller, from North Hollywood High, won the City singles title in 1984 and 1982.
“We feel like we are well-prepared,” Bassett said. "(But) if any one of our guys doesn’t play well, we’re in trouble.”
Last year everyone played well at Athens and the Bruins beat Stanford in the championship, 5-4, as Kures and Mark Basham combined to win the determining doubles match, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4.
Basham was the key in the tournament last season, winning four singles matches and two in doubles matches, without losing.
“I’m playing better than last year,” said Basham, one of two left-handers on the team. “I’m playing more aggressively, a little bit more confident.”
Basham, who is usually the No. 4 or No. 5 singles player, had a disappointing season but came on late.
Another player who figures to make a difference is Brett Greenwood, a sophomore from Brisbane, Australia.
“He didn’t play last year at all,” Bassett said. "(This year) he won more matches than anyone else on the team.”
Randy Part, a fifth-year senior, also didn’t play last year, and his season has been even more impressive than Greenwood’s, considering the circumstances.
Part had testicular cancer last season, and although he says it was not life-threatening, he did undergo three operations and lost more than 30 pounds.
This season, he has regained the form that helped him to a 26-3 record in his first three years. Part was the No. 7 or No. 8 singles player and a part-time starter this year.
Kures, a junior and the No. 1 singles player, also had a good year, although his was more conventional.
“He lost only one match, to (Greg) Hill of Texas A&M;,” Bassett said.
Kures, ranked No. 5 in singles in the nation, was hampered by a knee injury late in the season but the knee is feeling better now. “We’re comfortable to go ahead (and play on the knee),” he said.
Another key for the Bruins is the freshman doubles team of Diller and Brad Pearce, who won the clinching match at USC. They were doubles partners for several years before they got to UCLA but they started the season with different partners.
“But that didn’t work out, and they decided to try us back together. That has worked out well,” Diller said.
It worked out so well, in fact, that Diller and Pearce beat USC’s Antony Emerson and Ric Bengtson in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2, for the 5-4 victory over the Trojans.
“They finally ended up as No. 1 (doubles team),” Bassett said. “They’ve had a year behind them. They know what it’s all about. I’m pretty confident with them.”
If they didn’t know what it was all about, they certainly learned with their win at USC. All of the Bruins that day faced a hostile crowd and a strong Trojan team that had beaten them previously.
The teams engaged in verbal sparring, and several UCLA players exchanged taunts with the crowd.
“I said a few things,” Basham said. “He (USC’s Eric Amend, Basham’s opponent) was inciting the crowd a little bit. They were just getting out of control.”
Bassett believes that that match was important as a turning point.
“That did give us a lot of confidence,” he said. “It showed us we were pretty good. Even last year’s championship team didn’t beat SC over there.”
If UCLA plays host Georgia at Athens, that USC match will have prepared them.
“We’ve played Georgia before, and it’s very difficult because they (the crowd) are right down on the court on you,” Bassett said. “One of us (UCLA, USC, Stanford or Pepperdine) will probably get them in the quarterfinals.”
Before UCLA can afford to worry about that, though, the Bruins will have to deal with Miami, their first-round opponent.
“I know their top two players are very good,” Bassett said. “We played them last year at UCLA (and won, 8-1) We were impressed with them.”
The match’s starting time--8 a.m., which is 5 a.m. Pacific time--may cause more problems than the Hurricanes. When UCLA lost in February to Southern Methodist, the match was played early in the morning.
Bassett, however, does not think the time will have an effect. “We’ve done that before (early morning matches),” Bassett said. “It shouldn’t be a problem. We’re just worried about playing well.”