Over the course of three days of tennis punctuated by intermittent showers at the Trojans’ Marks Stadium, the Cal men’s tennis team split contests, putting it at 2-1 on the season. The blue and gold fell 4-0 to No. 18 UCLA in the first match of the ITA Kickoff Weekend but clinched a 4-3 victory over UNLV in the consolation match.
These were just the Bears’ second and third matches after the spring 2020 season was canceled last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Jan. 18, the team won its season opener against St. Mary’s.
“Team morale is outstanding because we’re back playing tennis,” said Cal men’s tennis director Peter Wright. “It’s hard to know who’s more excited — the players or the coaches.”
According to Wright, the extended break from competition has allowed rust to form in players’ games. Although the team has been practicing, it has not yet become fully accustomed to being back under the lights, which affected play this past weekend. Nonetheless, Wright is optimistic that the team will be able to regain form and compete throughout the rest of the season.
“We’re sharpening the blade now and really getting ourselves ready for the big competition that lies ahead,” Wright said. “These guys don’t lose it overnight. They don’t lose it over nine months.”
Against UCLA, the Bears came out the gate with every intention to win. Knowing that its opponent was also in a similar position of lacking game experience over the past nine months, the team was banking on its experienced senior class to lead the charge. However, Cal’s plan did not entirely come to fruition.
After the Bears dropped the first four singles matches, the rest of the matches, including doubles, went unfinished. In the end, the scoreboard did not fully reflect the blue and gold’s performance on the day. Juniors Yuta Kikuchi and Philip Hjorth each dropped their two sets, and seniors Ben Draper and Jacob Brumm followed suit. As a result, the final tally was determined before junior Kent Hunter and senior Paul Barretto, who were both leading in their respective matches, could finish competing.
“UCLA just got out a little bit ahead of us in a couple of areas where we weren’t performing at our highest levels,” Wright said. “There’s a very fine margin when you’re playing a high-quality opponent in the Pac-12.”
It was these details that ended up costing Cal the match against UCLA. In particular, Wright emphasized that this served as a place to seek improvement. Still, Wright said the Bears put up a solid performance and seemed hopeful that his squad should be able to hold its own in a future matchup.
“They’re [UCLA] one of the quality teams in the country, but we fully expect that the next time we play them, the outcome is going to be different,” Wright said.
Two days after playing the Bruins and following a rain delay, the Bears slipped by UNLV in a 4-3 win. While the team was able to clean up during the singles matches, Wright felt his team’s doubles performance left much to be desired.
“It was just a little bit unfortunate that we came out and played one of the worst doubles points that I’ve seen us play in several years,” Wright said. “We were making a lot of unforced errors, and it was just an uncharacteristic performance in doubles today.”
Heading into the singles matches, the Bears had some ground to make up, especially since the team was down three starters, which forced in a few players playing their first singles matches. The seniors were pivotal in stepping up and bringing the team back and ultimately winning the match. Draper sealed the deal in the final match of the contest, as he was able to come back from losing the first set 2-6 to winning the next two 7-6 and 6-3, pushing Cal over the top to an overall result of 4-3.
Now sitting at 2-1 on the season, the team is still working toward its main goal of reaching and winning the postseason. According to Wright, his team is built for the postseason, and its performance in the Pac-12 and NCAA championships is how success is measured.
“We have the team and the personnel to do it,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of hard work between now and the postseason, but the skill set, the talent, the drive, the desire and the character is all here, and now, we’ve got several short months to put it all together.”