In tennis, the opening tournament typically presents a moment where fans can evaluate the overall ambitions of a squad and assess its strengths and weaknesses. The ITA Kickoff Weekend formed no exception: The Bears came back from Austin, Texas, with solid results in doubles competition but still much to accomplish to achieve regularity in singles matches.
A strong opposition playing on its home courts was waiting for Cal, seeking to confirm its convincing wins in Bear territory against Bay Area rivals St. Mary’s and Stanford.
Yet, coach Kris Kwinta believed that the opening match should be one where experience and wisdom set the pace for the confrontation. Aligning graduate student Yuta Kikuchi and senior Philip Hjorth immediately paid off: Cal’s veterans took the opening doubles in stride and got rid of Texas twosome Chih Chi Huang and Eshan Talluri, 6-2.
However, the Longhorns ensured a stop to the blue and gold’s early momentum and reminded them of their No. 6 ranking. Seventh-ranked Eliot Spizzirri and Cleeve Harper defeated Carl Emil Overbeck and Siddhant Banthia in a disputed set, 7-5.
The worst was yet to come for Kwinta’s players. Simply put, a Texan tornado successively demolished Kikuchi, Banthia, Overbeck and Derrick Chen, leaving these Bears incapable of clinching a single set. With top-ranked players securing four wins in a row, the Longhorns wrapped up the confrontation 4-1.
Two games remained unfinished, with Hjorth taking a set to Huang, making his returns on the courts after an injury sustained during the fall season, and No. 52 Ryder Jackson tying 3-3 in the second set versus Belgian sophomore Pierre-Yves Bailly.
“The reason why we lost four singles matches is that they are better than us,” Kwinta said. “They have very experienced players who play at the highest levels, including in the international arena. They grabbed early leads in four singles matches and ran with them.”
The sun had gone down in the Lone Star State, and down with it went the light and Cal’s dreams of accessing the Sunday final. That being said, the mere satisfaction of the day was on the doubles meetings with a late second win posted by pair Lucas Magnaudet and Jackson, 7-6 (7-5).
Sunday was another day at the office for the vengeful Bears, gearing up to face the Owls from Florida Atlantic, who were ranked higher than the Bears in the last ITA poll of 2021-2022. Playing indoors for the second time in the Texas capitol, the Bears capitalized on their doubles’ collective strengths and left no chances to the Owls.
“We had a good conversation after the Texas match and hopefully got the guys’ attention about the importance of our FAU match. We did a pretty good job of getting guys ready for the second match, and they were ready to deliver,” Kwinta said.
Opening pair Kikuchi and Hjorth crushed their opponents 6-0 and inspired their seasoned teammates Overbeck and Banthia to collect the doubles point after prevailing 6-4 against Kevin Huempfner and Hunter Robbins.
A near-singles clean sheet followed the demonstration of the doubles, where attendance at Edgar O. and Melanie A. Weller Tennis Center assisted in three Cal wins, courtesy of Jackson, Magnaudet and Chen. The Owls secured their only point by Spanish senior Alberto Colas against fifth-year Banthia.
The Bears terminated their Texan contest with a well-deserved 4-1 aggregate victory, allowing them to improve their record 3-2 and cracking the No. 22 spot.
The Bears head home this week as they take on Pacific in a decisive dual series at the Hellman Tennis Complex. Cal fans will certainly be on the lookout for more constant results before a well-deserved three-week break in February.