Michael Pernfors -- actually, it's "Mikael" -- speaks with an accent that is somewhere between Athens, Ga., and Holldiksnas, Sweden.
The latter is the small southern coastal town where he grew up. The former is the small college town where he has spent two years as NCAA tennis champion while attending the University of Georgia.
Pernfors, who turned pro just two weeks ago, is another in the seemingly endless line of young tennis prospects streaming out of Sweden. There are five of them in the top 20 -- No. 3 ranked Mats Wilander, No. 6 Anders Jarryd, No. 9 Joakim Nystrom, No. 14 Stefan Edberg and No. 16 Henrik Sundstrom -- and their successes have come all over the world.
Pernfors celebrated his 22nd birthday yesterday by upsetting Joan Aguilera, 7-6 (9-7), 6-3, in the first round of the D.C. National Bank Tennis Classic at the Rock Creek Tennis Center. The match, stopped by rain Monday night, was one of the first victories on the men's professional tour for Pernfors, who made the tournament as a qualifier, and a significant one, as well. Aguilera was ranked 19th in the world last year, before dropping to 72nd this season.
From all indications, Pernfors has a chance to be one of his country's greatest players. In this case, however, Sweden might have trouble claiming him. The 1984 and 1985 NCAA champion left Sweden four years ago for Seminole Community College in Florida when it turned out he couldn't make any of the Swedish programs that have turned out the new wave of players.
"I was never good enough to play over there," he said after advancing to the second round against Yannick Noah, whom he will meet tonight at 7 o'clock. "You turn pro early over there, about 15. At 15, I was nowhere close to them. I say hello to them, and I wave to them, but I don't know them. I was never good enough to play in the same tournaments."
The son of an awning salesman and a home economics teacher, Pernfors began playing tennis in the small town of Holldiksnas, a beach village of about 6,000 people. When he was a senior in high school, a friend turned down a tennis scholarship to Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Pernfors wrote the school asking if he might receive the scholarship. He was rejected, but ODU referred him to Seminole.
Seminole Coach Larry Castle said Pernfors could come to school if he paid his own way. Pernfors' parents decided they would finance him for a year.
"Coach Castle told me later he didn't really want me to come," Pernfors said.
Still, the result was two straight junior college championships for Seminole and two singles titles for Pernfors. At the end of Pernfors' second year, Castle made a call to Georgia.
In 1984, he led Georgia to the team title in a stunning upset of the perennial West Coast tennis powers, then defeated Clemson's Lawson Duncan for the singles title.
This season, he lost only three matches before defeating Georgia teammate George Bezecny in the NCAA finals. No one had won back-to-back NCAA titles since Dennis Ralston of Southern California in 1963-64. "It wasn't until the first NCAA championship that I even considered playing professional tennis," he said. "I never knew how good I was, or could get. I didn't really take it seriously. I just wanted to make the traveling squad."
Pernfors has a strong forehand but, at 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds, he is not an overpowering player. He is, however, a thinking-man's player who has a great eye for angles and a head for strategy.
"He's obviously a great match player," said tournament co-chairman John Harris. "You don't win two NCAA titles without that. I don't know how good he's going to be, but he has the mind of a great player."