It’s official: Cal men’s tennis has dug itself out of its losing slump.
Heading into last weekend, the Bears had lost four matches in a row, leaving them 1-2 in the conference and 9-7 on the season overall. No. 43 Cal needed to deliver against two higher-seeded opponents: No. 28 UCLA and No. 10 USC.
And, boy, did the Bears deliver.
First up were the Bruins on Friday afternoon. While the Bruins were seeded higher, the Bears had the highest-ranked singles player on the courts in No. 37 Yuta Kikuchi, as well as the highest-ranked doubles team in No. 60 Ryder Jackson and Lucas Magnaudet.
The Bears came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, with doubles team Siddhant Banthia and Carl Emil Overbeck quickly dispatching their opponents on court one. Bears Philip Hjorth and Kikuchi defeated their opponents on court three, clinching the doubles point and putting the Bears up 1-0.
The score just kept climbing. After the Bears won the first set of singles on every court, Overbeck earned Cal’s first singles point when he defeated UCLA’s Aadarsh Tripathi in straight sets. Hjorth followed shortly after with another straight set victory on court five, leaving Kikuchi to clinch the win for the Bears on court one. Bears beat Bruins, 4-0.
“When we are winning we have really good energy, but when we are losing we typically have bad energy, very quiet, giving games to our opponents,” Kikuchi said. “Today, we held through during the tough moments and we were very focused to maintain that energy.”
But while on paper the Bears had a solid chance to beat the Bruins, No. 10 USC boasted highly ranked singles and doubles players. With a large home crowd and the sun beaming down, with the smell of free hamburgers in the air, the stage was set for an epic showdown between the Bears and the Trojans.
USC took an early lead with the doubles point, marking the fifth time Cal has lost the doubles point this season. The Trojans then won four of the first six sets. It seemed the Trojans were poised to annihilate the Bears.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the tide turned.
Kikuchi defeated USC’s No. 35 Stefan Dostanic in two sets after being one of two Bears to be up after the first set, putting Cal on the board and evening the score 1-1. Cal took the lead when senior Hjorth — the other Bear to have won a first set — defeated Samuel Rubell in straight sets on court six.
The Trojans immediately evened the score. No. 36 Peter Makk defeated Jackson in straight sets, after which USC retook the lead with another victory on court four. Cal then evened the score for the third time when Banthia won on court five. The Bears and Trojans now had three points each.
It was now all down to Overbeck on court three, and things did not look good. Overbeck was down 4-1 in the third. Despite the clear gap in the score, Overbeck brought the score to 4-2, then 4-3, with the crowd exploding on each winning point.
Then, USC’s Lodewijk Westsrate took control, notching the score back up to 5-3. It was match point — Overbeck was down 15-40. But the Bears scraped through as Overbeck saved two match points, clawing his way back to bring the score back to 5-4. Seemingly shaken, Westrate quickly lost the next game too, Overbeck now tying the score 5-5.
In another few rallies, Overbeck took the lead 6-5. He was one game away from victory.
The crowd was silent. It had cheered for Overbeck up to this point. But now, it stood quiet. Not even his teammates were cheering.
And then it happened.
The crowd went ballistic, Overbeck threw his racket while his team rushed to embrace him, swarming him in an instant, overjoyed at a seemingly impossible comeback, a fairy-tale ending to the three seniors who played what is likely to be their final home outing. Cal came back from the brink to defeat the Trojans 4-3.
“That’s what I’m trying to teach these guys. The beauty about tennis is there’s no time clock. It’s not basketball or soccer. You always have a chance,” said head coach Kris Kwinta. “If you believe, if you do the right things, if you tell yourself the right things, you stick together as a team, if you stay energized, good things happen.”
Beginning to round out its regular season, Cal will play No. 24 Stanford on Saturday. And in the spirit of tennis, that can be anyone’s match.