Despite not necessarily always playing their best tennis, the players of Cal men’s tennis pulled off two much-needed wins in their first home dual matches of the season. Routing Saint Mary’s 7-0 Tuesday and narrowly clinching against No. 13 Stanford at 4-3 Friday, this was a big week for the Bears.
Preparing for the harder match Friday — the “Big Slam” against Stanford — head coach Kris Kwinta made a bold strategic decision: The staff benched Cal’s best players for the singles matches to give underclassmen a chance to play and to rest their better players.
Still, the Bears managed to shut out the Gaels — and with style. No match went into a third set, with all six courts seeing decisive blue and gold victories.
The most exciting day of play, though, was undoubtedly Friday. The Bears came in as the underdog: The Cardinal have taken the win every year since 2018.
Despite winning in doubles on courts one and three with 6-2, and 6-4 scorelines, respectively, there were a good deal of sloppy errors across all the courts. Coach Kwinta, too, remarked that the quality of the tennis wasn’t the strongest — but the most crucial element proved to be the energy, which the team did a good job at keeping up.
The Bay Area wind also brought some trouble with serving on both sides of the net for a significant part of gameplay, but the players did quite well to adjust to the conditions.
“We tried to get the guys to toss the ball a little bit lower so the wind didn’t have a chance to affect (the serve) as much, and to stay calm, maybe not go for your biggest shot and design different plays,” said Kwinta.
Cal’s first loss of the day came from Wake Forest transfer Siddhant Banthia, who dropped two sets to finish 6-3, 6-2. According to Kwinta, this was the weakest match of the day. Despite Banthia’s experience, Kwinta said he wasn’t playing up to his level, and that he was disappointed with the strategy the fifth year chose to use.
The Bears also saw a close match on court two, one that Cal’s fall star Ryder Jackson ended up losing 7-6(1), 7-5 against No. 7 Max Basing. Both played well, but Basing seemed to have more control, dominating the points and leaving Jackson to defend the baseline.
That being said, Jackson pulled out some excellent defense, with great movement at the back of the court. There was, however, much left to be desired when it came to his offense. The junior could have benefited from a more aggressive early strike, especially off of his opponents’ returns, and more pressure at the net.
The true star of the show was graduate student Yuta Kikuchi, who played a three-setter finishing out at 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 to seal the deal for Cal. Having played Stanford’s Arthur Fery numerous times before — but never beaten him — Kikuchi said he knew how to approach the match, and got an early break in the first set.
In the second, Kikuchi was struggling with his second serve and capitalizing on the returns.
“His forehand is weaker than his backhand — his backhand is world-class — so we were aiming to his forehand with my second serve,” Kikuchi said. “I was a little bit nervous because I usually go to the opponents’ backhand, so it’s kind of outside of my routine.”
Kwinta was impressed with the energy Kikuchi brought in the match, commenting specifically on how much more coachable he has become over his time at Cal.
“For him to put the team on his back and at that moment play his best tennis and be locked in and believe just speaks volumes (about) his development and his capacity,” Kwinta said.
Overall, Cal did a good job capitalizing on key points and being aggressive instead of falling back on defense to get through deuce points and earn breaks — but the team certainly has areas to clean up if it hopes to advance at the ITA Kickoff Weekend next week.