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Jay Berger Just Won’t Go Away : Amateur Defeats Teacher to Gain the Round of 16

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The registration clerks at Manhattan’s St. Moritz Hotel probably had another good laugh Sunday night. The Berger family from Plantation, Fla., is checking back in . . . again.

This is the third time they have had to reissue the Bergers a room key. Why? Because the 18-year-old tennis-playing member of the family, Jay, refuses to check out of the men’s competition at the U.S. Open.

What started out as a pleasant little foray to New York has developed into a long-running adventure for the Bergers. Beyond their wildest expectations, they have been forced to stay put while U.S. Open wild-card Jay Berger, ranked No. 730 on the world computer, continues to follow unlikely victory with unlikely victory--maneuvering his way into the round of 16.

The latest, and biggest, surprise came in Sunday’s third round. There, Berger upset Brian Teacher in four sets, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6.

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To place this accomplishment in proper perspective, consider:

Teacher won the Australian Open in 1980, reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1982, was ranked in the Top 30 through 1983 and is currently rated No. 87 in the world. That’s 643 notches higher than Berger.

Berger, in contrast, has played one professional tournament prior to the U.S. Open. That was in Boston, where he lost to Mikael Pernfors in the first round. Berger qualified for the Open as a wild card by winning the U.S. Tennis Assn.'s 18-and-under tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich., last month.

“Three weeks ago, he was playing juniors tennis,” said Jay’s father, Paul. “Now this.”

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Berger is not the first unknown to break through into the U.S. Open’s round of 16. In truth, he is this year’s model--following Bruce Manson (1981), Rodney Harmon (1982), Aaron Krickstein (1983) and Robert Green (1984) in what has become an annual tradition. He is the first amateur since Krickstein to reach the round of 16.

His story is a virtual rerun of Krickstein ’83. Like Krickstein, he’s an undersized (145 pounds) baseliner; he qualified for the Open by winning at Kalamazoo; he reached the fourth round by upsetting a former Australian Open champion (Krickstein beat Vitas Gerulaitis); and--this is the real quirk--he is scheduled to face Yannick Noah in the round of 16.

Noah was the same obstacle that stopped Krickstein in 1983.

Paul Berger is aware of the similarities. He brought the name up quickly in an interview, asking a reporter, “How far did Krickstein get?”

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But have no doubt about it: Jay Berger’s tale of success, on its own, is unique.

This unique:

--He plays each match with a brace wrapped around his right knee and a service motion with no backswing. The brace is to protect a knee that was operated on three years ago. “The kneecap floats around, from over here to over there, and it makes noise,” Berger says. “You wanna see?”

--He employs an unorthodox serve to protect a right shoulder that has been separated four times.

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--He played No. 3 singles at Clemson University this year and was only the third-best Clemson product entered in the U.S. Open field. Lawson Duncan, 1984 NCAA singles finalist, lost in the first round, and Richard Matuszewski, who played No. 1 singles for the Tigers this spring, lost in the second.

--He was tied with Derrick Rostagno in his first-round match, one set apiece, before darkness interrupted at 5-5 in the third set. After a night’s rest and some advice from coach Brian Gottfried, Berger came back the next day to beat Rostagno, 6-4, 5-7, 7-5, 0-6, 6-4.

--And in Sunday’s match against Teacher, Berger lost the first set and was down, 1-5, in the fourth before rallying to salvage the set and the match in a 7-3 tiebreaker.

Berger still seems a bit wide-eyed by it all as he is ushered into a CBS sound booth for a television interview and is approached with pen-and-program for autographs.

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He admits he’s been walking on the sunshine of good fortune.

“I’ve gotten a good draw,” he said. “I didn’t have to meet McEnroe or Wilander in the first or second or third round.”

And, he isn’t sure what to think about his Tuesday confrontation with Noah, the tournament’s seventh-seeded player.

“I’ve seen him on TV and he’s a hell of a player. He’s a big guy,” Berger said. “I’ve never thought about playing him. I never thought I would get the chance.”

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Berger got the chance because he caught the 30-year-old Teacher on an off-day and played him with intelligence, if not brilliance. Berger stayed in the backcourt, waited for Teacher to rush the net, countered with passing shots and hoped Teacher would make mistakes.

Teacher did. He committed 49 unforced errors.

That helped Berger a lot. So did several sheets of yellow legal paper, which Berger religiously studied during changeovers.

“Brian Gottfried wrote me messages, little reminders, like ‘Watch the ball in tight situations,’ ” Berger said.

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Gottfried, recently retired from the pro tour, has been coaching several young Americans on the men’s circuit--Greg Holmes, Jimmy Arias, Luke Jensen. He and Berger live in neighboring communities in Florida and have held occasional hitting sessions over the years.

They began working together in earnest once Berger won at Kalamazoo--knowing that his next stop would be the U.S. Open.

“Brian’s been great,” Berger said. “He’s been working with me especially on my serve-and-volley game.”

And that’s the part of Berger’s game that especially needs work. Because his serve--which starts with racket held behind his head until the ball toss reaches its apex--packs little power, Berger usually has to rely on his strength from the baseline.

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“He’s an American Swede,” Paul Berger said. “He has all those kind of shots--drop shots, finesse shots. He’s really a clay-court player.”

As he spoke, Paul was approached by a young tennis player, Buff Farrow of Wichita, Kan., who lost to Berger in a juniors tournament in Louisville.

“Congratulations, Mr. Berger,” Farrow said as he held out his hand. “I don’t feel so bad about losing (to Jay) now.”

Berger’s surprising run, barring divine intervention, figures to end Tuesday against Noah. The Bergers can check out of their hotel for good now.

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But along the way, Jay Berger has had some fun, made a little splash and extended his first visit to New York to more than a week. Now, it’s time to get back to business.

Such as school.

“I’ve already missed nine days,” Berger said. “I’m not off to a good start with my teachers.”

However, he did have one very productive session with a Teacher Sunday afternoon at the U.S. Open.

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