One member of Cal men’s tennis can’t rest — not just yet. While the rest of the team left the season behind after the Bears’ early exit in the NCAA team tournament, Cal’s Yuta Kikuchi still has a Herculean task ahead of him: the NCAA singles championship.
The No. 27 singles player in the country earned an at-large berth into the tournament — which will be his last stint with the blue and gold — earlier this month, and will travel to the USTA campus in Orlando in time for Monday, when matches kick off. The draw is yet to be announced as of press time.
Kikuchi, Cal’s No. 1 player, is coming into the tournament with a 16-9 record. He also finds himself as the fourth-highest ranked player from the Pac-12 conference, with all four set to appear in the tournament.
Despite the fact that this will be Kikuchi’s first time playing in the NCAA singles tournament, Cal head coach Kris Kwinta said that Kikuchi’s five years with the program will bring valuable experience to the table — or court.
“He has been in tough positions, playing No. 1 for Cal, beating top players in college, so he knows what it takes to play at that level and he’s in good shape,” Kwinta said. “The experience and being well-conditioned are his advantages — and the belief, he’s developed a strong belief and confidence in his game over this year.”
Kikuchi is a player that relies massively on his serve. Granted, the serve is a key part of any player’s game, but it’s instrumental for the graduate student as it improves the flow in the rest of his game. So, not only is it important for Kikuchi to be in the right headspace entering his final tournament as a Bear — to avoid any mentality-stemming serving issues, as is not uncommon for players — but also to make sure that there are no technical kinks.
“We’ve been addressing his serve. When he’s serving, the rest of (his) game is clicking. He (gets) some free points off all (his) serves, so then the rest of (his) game connects well,” Kwinta said. “So (we’re) spending a lot of time doing that, and just a lot of movement and consistency that he relies on.”
At this tournament, Kikuchi will face the best of the best. While collegiate tennis is not necessarily on the same level as the professional tour, it has become much more of a stepping stone in recent years, with the NCAA producing some big names on the Association of Tennis Professionals, or ATP, Tour as of late.
One of these big names is Ben Shelton, who won the tournament last year and went on to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals earlier this year, then skyrocketed to a No. 35 ATP ranking.
“It’s a big draw, it’s a physical tournament and you play the best of the best — and the best in college is tough … The best guys will go on and do good things on the pro tour,” Kwinta said. “If you can beat these guys in a tournament like the NCAA tournament, you’re ready to go. You’re for sure conditioned to withstand what it takes on the pro tour.”
Even the draw in this tournament is akin to the ATP Tour, with individual players in the draw rather than the team as a whole. This brings a different energy, as players don’t have their teammates on surrounding courts and are not tallying points as a team to move to the next round.
Kwinta thinks that this might be to Kikuchi’s advantage: The fifth-year is “a little bit more on the quiet side” and won’t have the ability to get distracted by the weight of responsibility to the whole team in this individual draw.
As Kikuchi embarks on his last collegiate adventure before committing to the pro tour full-time, emotions are certainly mixed — “there’s not a single coach that was not going to be emotional about his top player leaving,” as Kwinta said. But all focus is on the tournament ahead, with the possibility of Kikuchi making a deep run in a very packed draw.
A previous version of this article stated that Kikuchi had a 12-7 singles record on the season. In fact, Kikuchi’s singles record is 16-9.