The No. 4 USC men’s tennis team moved to the front of the Pac-10 conference with two very different types of wins over the weekend.
With No. 9 UCLA losing 4-3 to No. 7 Stanford on Saturday, the Trojans (18-2, 4-0) remain the only undefeated team in conference play with two more Pac-10 matches left on the schedule.
On Saturday, USC hosted No. 17 California (10-6, 1-2) and defeated the Bears 6-1.
The Trojans started out quickly with wins at the top two doubles positions to take the match’s initial point.
The No. 8 team of senior Robert Farah and sophomore Steve Johnson played at the No. 1 position and defeated its counterparts from Berkeley 8-3, and at No. 2 sophomore Daniel Nguyen and freshman JT Sundling won 8-4.
During the singles portion, USC continued to rack up points as No. 1 Johnson, No. 83 Nguyen, and No. 123 Sundling easily kept their opponents at bay and clinched victories.
Soon after, No. 15 Farah defeated No. 71 Christopher Konigsfeldt 6-3, 6-4 to give USC a 5-0 match lead.
The Trojans split the remaining two matches, which went to third-set super tiebreaks.
No. 73 junior Jaak Poldma came up short at the No. 3 position, but senior Jason McNaughton finished off the match with a victory over Riki McLachlan, making the most of his opportunity to contribute during conference play.
McNaughton has had an injury-plagued career as a Trojan and is relishing his opportunity to participate in conference play.
“It feels good to contribute to some good wins in the Pac-10 with a chance to win one of these Pac-10 titles,” McNaughton said.
On Friday, the Trojans entertained the large Marks Stadium crowd in a down-to-the-wire finish against No. 7 Stanford (12-5, 2-1).
USC beat Stanford 5-2 in a close match, which has come to be expected when the Trojans and Cardinal meet on the courts.
“We seem to have nine lives,” USC coach Peter Smith said in describing how his team pulled through another tightly-contested match against Stanford.
As with Cal, USC had some good performances from the top two doubles positions.
Farah and Johnson defeated No. 1 Bradley Klahn and Ryan Thacher 8-3, and Nguyen and Sundling defeated No. 31 Alex Clayton and Richard Wire 8-4.
At the No. 3 position, Poldma and junior Peter Lucassen were ahead in their match 7-4, before it was suspended when the doubles point was clinched after the completion of the first two matches.
The singles portion seemed almost a different match compared to the way the Trojans played in doubles.
To start off, Stanford was able to tie up the match score as Denis Lin defeated Lucassen 6-3, 6-4.
Johnson reclaimed the match lead — avenging a loss during the previous Stanford match to No. 45 Clayton — with a 6-3, 6-2 triumph.
In what Smith called the key performance of match, McNaughton defeated Greg Hirshman 6-4, 6-3.
Hirshman was previously undefeated at the No. 6 position, and McNaughton’s win propelled the Trojans to a 3-1 match lead with three three-set matches still being decided on the courts.
Poldma came up short in his match, tightening up the match score and ratcheting up the tension at Marks Stadium.
With the two remaining matches on the courts still in doubt, the large crowd was fixated on every point.
Nguyen pulled out the decisive victory, defeating Wire 7-5, 2-6, 6-3.
Nguyen has not been in such a crucial position often, but displayed maturity and poise to gain the fourth match point.
“I was happy to embrace the opportunity,” Nguyen said. “I was a little nervous, but it was good to clinch the match.”
Meanwhile, Farah and Klahn were locked in an intense battle. The match went back and forth as Farah and Klahn exchanged breaks to send the deciding third set into a tiebreak.
In the breaker, the struggle continued until Farah finally prevailed 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-7 (8).
The Trojans’ success in close matches this season can be boiled down to one prevailing theme — experience.
“The team sees the bigger picture, they are very experienced and have lots of understanding of what it takes to win in these situations,” Smith said. “They have had success in close matches, which builds momentum and recall during the tough situations.”
With two more conference matches left in their dual match season, the Trojans understand the mindset necessary to achieve success and potentially win the Pac-10 title.
“We have to keep it going, and stay rested, healthy and hungry,” Smith said.