Pair of USD Teams Courting National Prominence in Tennis : Men Will Be Even Better If Noriega Returns


As the early afternoon sun sizzles and adds a dozen degrees to what is already an unusually warm winter day, Jose Luis Noriega anxiously paces the perimeter of the University of San Diego tennis courts.

Occasionally he shouts a word of encouragement or, during a service break, pats the back of David Stewart, the player who has temporarily replaced him in the No. 1 singles spot.

For now, Noriega is a player to be named later. And, he hopes, to play later. But for now, the 19-year-old freshman sensation from Peru must watch and wait.


He hurt an ankle in a Feb. 18 match but would not have been able to play in the past 10 matches even if he had been healthy. Two days after the injury, Noriega was stuck in an eligibility snafu, involving a score on an entrance exam, and was banned from competition pending an NCAA inquiry that was to end Tuesday. As of late in the day, USD still had not received word on the outcome.

USD men’s tennis team is high on the crest of a winning wave with a 13-3 record and a No. 21 national ranking. But Noriega, who is ranked No. 36 nationally among college players and whose record was 5-1 before he left the lineup, is missed. According to Torero Coach Ed Collins and Noriega’s teammates, the Lima native has been a catalyst.

“His level of play is so high,” Collins said. “He came in and right away raised the level of everyone else’s games.”

USD has never made the NCAA Tournament and if ever there has been a time to qualify, this is the year.

“We have so much potential, and we’re playing with so much confidence now,” said Dan Mattera, a junior. “We just have to go out there and win each match and keep our heads on.”

Said senior Rick Matheson: “Our potential depends on everyone staying healthy and everyone playing well.”


Collins said that because tennis is an individual sport, USD has a chance against Pacific 10 and Southwest Conference caliber teams and could soon become a tennis power.

“It’s not a David-and-Goliath type of thing,” Collins said. “You have six guys against six guys.”

The Toreros have upset fourth-ranked USC--Noriega defeated the Trojans’ No. 1 player, 6-1, 6-1--and were narrowly defeated by No. 13 Texas Christian and No. 20 Trinity at the Corpus Christi (Tex.) College Team Championships last week. USD’s only other loss was 7-2 in the season opener to No. 1 UCLA.

Noriega would provide an added dimension of play to a team already laden with talent. He is a four-time Peruvian Junior National champion, won the 1987 South American Junior Championship, German Open Junior Championship and Italian Open Junior Doubles Championship. When he was consistently playing well in junior tournaments in Europe after graduating from high school in December 1986, he was ranked among the top 30 junior players in the world.

To friends and family, Noriega is simply “Tato,” a nickname he inherited as an infant--it was the first word out of his mouth.

Noriega is popular with teammates for his tennis prowess but foremost for his leadership qualities, his work ethic and his sense of humor.


“He’s a great guy,” Mattera said, “really team-oriented. He’s always rooting you on and is the last to leave if you have a long match. He’s really concerned with the team, and he works so hard.”

Matheson said Noriega’s eager but business-like approach has affected the way the entire team practices.

“He was a hard worker the first time he came on to the team,” Matheson said. “Everyone feeds off that. It’s made a difference in the way the team plays. We have a work ethic on the court that I’ve never seen.”

Collins said he was amazed at how much poise Noriega showed for a first-year college student.

“He’s a wise old freshman,” Collins said. “He’s been able to come in and assert himself and attack that ladder.”

Noriega credits his tennis demeanor, which Collins described as “the perfect temperament to be successful in tennis,” to his early training days in Peru. There, his trainer and coach instilled the values that have carried him.


Although he was recruited by Pepperdine, UCLA and the University of Miami, he chose USD because of the lure of tennis and academics. He learned of USD from his cousin, Max Cooper, who also attends USD, and Julio Noriega, a Peruvian friend (no relation) who was the No. 1 player at San Diego State for four years.

Besides being impressed by the overall level of college tennis--”I didn’t realize that it was so good,” he said--Noriega was equally taken with San Diego.

“I like it so much here,” Noriega said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. Ed’s a good coach, we have a great team and it’s a good school.”

While Noriega has proven himself as a player, he is still implementing new things into his game, a result of switching from clay courts to hard courts.

“The surface change will make him even better,” Collins said. “He’s a little reluctant to use his volleys to finish points in singles and his return and passing game could improve, but he likes to get his game going from the baseline. His skills are in his ground strokes.”

Collins said he feels Noriega could accomplish whatever he sets out to do in tennis.

“He has no limitations,” he said. “He’s agile and hits the ball beautifully.”

Noriega has done traveled extensively, making the adjustment to a new country and culture minimal. But he found that getting into the United States can be a nightmare.


“Whenever I come to the United States,” Noriega said, “I tell them I’m from Peru. They think I’m a drug dealer so they take me to a special room to be searched.”