The most intriguing thing about the T. Rowe Price National Intercollegiate Clay Court Championships is the likelihood of surprises.
The eight-day event running through Sunday at the Suburban Club is the first leg of college tennis' grand slam, to be followed by the All-America Championships in mid-October, the Rolex National Indoor Championships in February and the NCAA Championships in May.
As the school year's first event, it is full of surprises. Coaches don't dare place too much faith in final NCAA rankings from last spring because talented freshmen pop up everywhere.
Take Sargis Sargsian. Two years ago, as an Arizona State freshman, Sargsian, an Armenian, stormed through the qualifying round into the main draw and went to the final.
"He remained in the college top 10, and last spring won the NCAA championship," said Tennessee coach John Kreis, chairman of the men's clay courts committee. "Then he turned pro and won his first two matches in this year's U.S. Open."
Kreis and Syracuse coach Jesse Dwire, chairman of the women's clay courts committee, are certain there are surprises in this year's field, although they haven't surfaced yet.
The pre-qualifier was completed yesterday with 28 matches played indoors at the Greenspring Racquet Club and Baltimore Tennis and Fitness Center because of the rain. The qualifiers in men's and women's singles start today, with the eight survivors advancing to Thursday's main draw, joining the 24 NCAA top-ranked players.
One of Dwire's Syracuse players, Nicole Strnadova, raced through the qualifier and into the quarterfinals last year as a freshman.
"That's an example of what often happens," Dwire said. "You just don't know. There are always surprises in this tournament."
Strnadova is in the main draw this year, but unseeded. Her sister, Jana, also of Syracuse, is seeded fourth. The top seed, Marie-Laure Bougnol, a Mississippi junior, has never lost a college match on clay.
"She won the clay courts championship two years ago as a freshman," Dwire said of Bougnol. "She lost in the final last year, but it was indoors because of the rain." (Results, Page 12D)