It wasn't long ago that Bill Behrens procrastinated when it came time to practice. Talent and success were his, but not dedication. Now, after winning the Ojai Valley Tournament singles championship and being recognized as one of the top three 18-and-under amateur tennis players in Southern California, Behrens has an answer for skeptics who question his commitment.
"I'd rather be out there on the court than in school," said Behrens, a senior at Rolling Hills High School who this season powered the Titans (9-1 in league, 14-6 overall) to a tie with Palos Verdes for the Bay League championship. "Other things I do conflict with my tennis."
Parties, some say, used to be a priority for Behrens. Going out the night before a tournament is now unthinkable.
"He has always had a strong sense of energy," said Palos Verdes Coach John Fullerton, "but it was kept from peaking because I think he had a sense of mischief. Now his concentration is a noticeable improvement from four to six months ago. He is aware that he is capable of playing big tennis."
Acclaim has never escaped the 6-2, 175-pound Behrens. As a junior he won 59 of 63 sets, earning Bay League co-most valuable player honors and all-American status for his efforts. The other MVP, Pete Sampras of Palos Verdes High, captured the CIF championship in straight sets after losing his only set of the season to Behrens in the semifinals. Behrens also had been named first-team all-League as a sophomore.
This season he steamrolled to a 21-0 set record in dual competition, lost his only set of the spring at Ojai and qualified for the CIF individual playoffs by winning the Bay League singles championship on Tuesday. Behrens, whose team will play host to San Marcos next Tuesday in a first-round 5A playoff match, also helped the Titans qualify for the CIF playoffs four consecutive years.
But, "it's only in the last two years that he has gotten serious about tennis," said Christine Behrens, Bill's sister, who guided UC San Diego to a Division III tennis championship last year. "He always did well, but he never wanted to practice. Then, all of a sudden, something clicked."
A year ago Behrens' potential turned the heads of UCLA's coaches. Other schools, Behrens said, hopped on the recruiting band wagon in the last few months after he finished well in a few national tournaments. The fair-weather interest helped him decide to sign a letter of intent with UCLA two weeks ago, despite receiving only a partial scholarship.
"UCLA noticed that I could be a good player before any other colleges," Behrens said. "That gave me an indication of where I wanted to go and that (UCLA's) coaching was excellent."
Behrens' workmanlike approach to the game seems suited for a UCLA program coached since 1967 by Glenn Bassett, who stresses matter over mind. Bassett, whose teams have won seven NCAA championships and 11 Pac-10 titles, drills players constantly, hoping they won't think too much but rather rely on sharp instincts developed in practice.
"We're tickled to death to have Bill here," said UCLA assistant coach Bill Martin, a freshman NCAA singles champion at UCLA in 1975 who had played three years at Palos Verdes High. "We heard that he lost interest in tennis for awhile . . . but's that's good. It means he's doing it now because he wants to."
About nine months ago Behrens, a serve-and-volley specialist, began polishing the skills that gave him a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Long Beach Wilson High's Willie Quest last month in the finals at Ojai.
Last summer Behrens started training with Mike Newberry, an artist by weekday and tennis coach by weekend who helped USC tie for an NCAA championship in 1976.
"Bill had a lot of talent, but his technique was not that strong, so we started working backward down from a weakness," said Newberry.
First, Behrens' mediocre backhand. Next, his predictable serve. Then, his volleys. And finally, an education in how to control his opponent.
"He tended to play the same way throughout the match," Newberry said. "His opponent would get used to his serve and start returning it. And he had no clue about how to set up a point. I gave him the sense of knowing what to do at what time. What distinguishes him now is his willpower to do what is right (on the court)."
Now, Behrens can blast aces on serve and pass from the base line.
"I don't want to have one major strength that could break down and ruin my whole game," he said. "I don't want to play in a (predictable) rhythm. I want a variety of weapons so in case one doesn't work against a certain player, I can turn to another."
How far Behrens has progressed became clear at Ojai. His semifinal match was even at one set apiece when Los Altos High's Alex Reichel, whom Behrens had trounced twice in straight sets in the previous two weeks, served his way to a 40-15 lead while up 4-3 in the final set. One more point would have given Reichel a decisive bead on a final-round berth.
But Behrens charged on the ensuing two points and eventually broke Reichel's serve after Reichel had stymied him in the first two sets with a barrage of blistering passing shots.
In the finals, Behrens used Newberry's coaching to solve Quest's topspin lob and avenge a recent three-set loss to Quest in a Long Beach tournament.
Many envision similar performances for Behrens at UCLA and beyond.
"From what I've seen," said Bassett, UCLA's coach who hopes Behrens can play singles and doubles at Westwood, "he'll be a top college and pro player."
Rolling Hills Coach Tom Cox agrees: "He is asking for a challenge at UCLA, and it'll be great for him because you always rise to the level of your competition."
Added Newberry: "If he keeps improving at this rate, he could become one of the top players in the world."
Sampras, the 16-year-old boy wonder who turned pro two months ago and sometimes practices with Behrens, questions only Behrens' mettle.
"He has the potential to play pro tennis, but I don't know if has the mind," Sampras said from New York City, where he lost a first-round straight-set match to Mikael Pernfors in the recent Tournament of Champions. "In the pros, you have to take every game like it's your last, play every point like it's your final one. I'm not sure if Bill has the attitude for that."
Christine Behrens is sure. Sometimes, she said, she'll phone home to chat around 8 p.m. and have to do all the talking because Bill is drained from practicing all day.
"I'm an economics major," Christine said, "and I've made Bill promise that when he becomes famous through tennis, he'll make me his business manager."