And just like that, it’s over. After facing 25 opponents, playing 75 doubles and 150 singles matches this spring, Cal men’s tennis finished out its season with a second-round 4-0 loss to No. 7 Michigan at the NCAA championship.
Even making it to the NCAAs was a big feat for this team — the Bears haven’t played in a postseason national championship since 2019. In fact, only one player on Cal’s roster had ever played in an NCAA championship: USC transfer Ryder Jackson and he wasn’t even playing for Cal.
Despite all that, Cal came out firing on all cylinders — at least in the first round.
Facing No. 34 LSU on Saturday, the No. 29 Bears started out strong in doubles, winning two straight matches with 6-2 and 6-3 score lines and propelling themselves into singles with a 1-point lead.
“We came out of the gate very well, the doubles point was very good,” said fifth-year Philip Hjorth, who played his last matches in the blue and gold this weekend. “We definitely jumped on them and that energy carried into singles. A lot of the guys went out there and got the first sets … that really made a difference for the rest of the team.”
The Tigers evened the score 1-1 after LSU’s Stefan Latinovic took out Cal’s Jackson in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4. But that was the only loss the Bears saw all day, as they took the next three singles wins to clinch berth into the second round the next day.
And there is where things went south for the Bears.
Cal gave up the doubles point and then proceeded to lose in singles across the board, only winning 13 games across all three finished singles matches. The cushion of winning the doubles point helped the Wolverines feel more comfortable and excel in their game, Hjorth said.
Cal head coach Kris Kwinta noted the team simply wasn’t ready for the powerhouse that is Michigan tennis.
“We were all just a little overpowered and overwhelmed by the situation,” Kwinta said. “Unfortunately, we dug ourselves too big of a hole.”
Over 29 matches they played this season before facing Cal, the Wolverines had lost just four. Coming into the match with a stellar 25-4 record — 8-1 in the Big Ten — Michigan was certainly the favorite. Compared to Michigan’s .862 record ahead of the matchup, Cal sat at just .565.
It is also worth noting that Michigan is primarily an indoor team; spending a large portion of their season playing on indoor courts, the Wolverines have honed their first serves — a crucial component of playing indoors as players rely on their serves much more to gain control. Though the two teams met outside, the Wolverines were still able to execute those powerful plays.
“We don’t get to face teams like that very often, so I think the guys were a little bit surprised by their level,” Kwinta said. “Indoor teams are serve-oriented, make high (a) percentage (of) first serves, they play a powerful game. … We didn’t expect that much firepower.”
The first singles loss of the day came from Hjorth, who was overpowered by No. 63 Gavin Young, losing 6-3, 6-2. Hjorth’s loss was followed by the exact same score line from Wake Forest transfer Siddhant Banthia. Hammering in the shutout, No. 8 Ondrej Styler beat Cal’s top-ranked player in No. 27 Yuta Kikuchi, 6-2, 6-1.
The Michigan match also served as Hjorth’s last outing in the blue and gold. Kikuchi, Cal’s other fifth-year, still has the singles NCAA championship ahead of him at the end of the month.
“(I’m) very nostalgic, it’s weird. That’s five years and that’s my time at Cal done,” Hjorth said. “Obviously losing sucks, but at the end of day (I’m) left behind with a lot of gratitude and a lot of good memories that I’m just very thankful for.”
Despite a relatively early exit from the national championship, Cal men’s tennis has had an accomplished season, one that put it back in play on the national scale and featured some impressive top-ranked wins.
Kwinta hopes to bring that same energy into next year, but was cognisant of the fact that the Bears didn’t close out the season capitalizing on big opportunities.
“As a coach, you’re hungry for more, you’re never satisfied: You beat Stanford, you beat USC, you beat UCLA, you beat LSU and then you want more,” Kwinta said. “We left a lot out on the table, I thought.”
The final stretch will feature just one member of the blue and gold: Kikuchi, who earned a spot in the NCAA singles tournament slated for late May. And 225 matches later, the rest of the Bears get some time off before play kicks off again come fall.