SPORTS NOTEBOOK

College Tennis Championship Is No Longer for Solo Stars

LARRY BIRD once told this reporter that if he had to do it all over again, he might choose to pursue tennis over basketball. The reason? In tennis, individual effort and initiative are paramount, and there is little in the way of group frustration. Still, tennis has its team competitions and its team advocates, most notably Billie Jean King, who has pushed team tennis for years and now leads a second-generation pro league that has enjoyed modest success.

King must be encouraged by a bold decision at the college level to make this spring's Division II National Collegiate Athletic Association championships a team-only event, with titles awarded to men's and women's teams. Historically, colleges have crowned both individual and team champions during two-tiered national tournaments. They will continue to do so at the major-college (Division I) level.

Officials at the Division II level, however, reportedly have discussed a championship format change for many years. Growth in the number of quality teams prompted the switch.

''We don't want to take the individual out of the game,'' says Steve Bailey, the men's and women's tennis coach at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. ''We simply want to go to a team concept because that's what most coaches wanted. This [format] is not perfect. The disadvantage is that a great player can't go to the nationals if [his or her] team doesn't qualify. The flip side is that we think we're positively affecting more teams.''

Sixteen teams instead of eight will compete for men's and women's titles May 11-14 in Davis, Calif. The gathering marks the first in which both sexes play at a common site. That, too, must please King.

Uncrowded baseball

IN the short term, baseball fans can be as unpredictable as the spring weather -- partly because of the erratic weather -- which is why it's unwise to make snap judgments about the state of poststrike major-league attendance.

To be sure, the crowds have been noticeably smaller in such cities as Atlanta and Toronto. But at others, namely Anaheim, Calif., and New York (for both Yankees and Mets), the turnstiles have been clicking at an encouraging rate. In Anaheim, it might be added, fans stung by the departure of pro- football's Rams to St. Louis may want to show their support of pro sports. Cut-rate tickets bolstered turnouts at some ballparks.

In a comparison of major league attendance figures in April 1995 and April '94, compiled by the Associated Press based on statistics from the Elias Sports Bureau, overall average attendance was only modestly higher last year -- 29,307 to 28,234.

It doesn't appear that fans stayed away consistently enough to send any message to ballplayers about their unhappiness with the long strike. Some disgruntled fans, in fact, chose to express their displeasure at the ballpark. Three Mets fans wearing T-shirts with ''Greed'' written on them disrupted the Shea Stadium home opener by running out to second base and throwing $150 in $1 bills at the players.

Touching other bases

r Pop quiz: During the last six years, only one California team has been ranked No. 1 in the final college baseball polls. Name it. (Answer at end.)

* One of the most bizarre swings of fortune in National Basketball Association playoff history occurred over the weekend. On Friday, the Boston Celtics were handed a shameful 47-point loss by the Orlando Magic, the worst loss in the Celtics' long history. On Sunday, the Celtics managed to beat the Magic, 99-92, to even their first-round, best-of-five series at one game apiece. What accounted for such a reversal? Maybe the decision Boston coach Chris Ford made after Friday's loss to have the Celtics review the embarrassing debacle on video late into the night had something to do with it.

* A time capsule will be sealed and placed in one of the twin spires at Churchill Downs in Louisville this week as the Kentucky Derby celebrates the track's 100th anniversary. A proclamation from President Clinton, a memento from the 1995 Derby winner, and soil from the track will be among the encapsulated items. Instructions call for the capsule to be opened on the track's 200th anniversary. When the track first opened, African-American jockey James (Soup) Perkins, 15, rode Halma to a wire-to-wire victory in what was the 21st running of the Derby. Only four horses went to the post.

* Quiz answer: Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

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