The reigning NCAA national champion men’s tennis team began its campaign for a record fifth consecutive title this past weekend with strong individual and doubles performances at the Sherwood Collegiate Cup in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
The tournament showcased nationally ranked talent from UCLA, Baylor, Stanford and Cal. USC, however, held its own: in doubles competition, the Trojans advanced three doubles teams to the semi-final rounds. Eric Johnson and teammate Emilio Gomez faced off against fellow Trojans Ray Sarmiento and Yannick Hanfmann. Hanfmann, who as a freshman won the singles match that clinched the NCAA team championship last season, was forced to retire from the match because of injury.
Johnson and Gomez went on to face third-seeded UCLA tandem Marcos Giron and Dennis Novikov in the final. The match came down to the wire, with Giron and Novikov eking out an 8-7 (4) victory.
Hanfmann’s partner, Sarmiento, was the No. 1 seed in the men’s singles draw. Sarmiento cruised through the early rounds without dropping a set, dispatching three Bruins in knockout stages en route to the championship match, which took place Monday.
During the match, Sarmiento faced Adrien Puget of UCLA. After dropping the first set 4-6, Sarmiento would go on to capture the second set 6-3. In the deciding set, Sarmiento saved match point and played what USC coach Peter Smith called “some of the best tennis [he’s] seen” to secure the victory 7-5. Smith noted that “both players looked tense” in the early going and attributed Sarmiento’s success to his aggressive play.
Though the results did not measure up to last year’s Collegiate Cup, where the Trojans swept the trophies and dominated the draw, Smith had plenty of reason to be optimistic about the year’s prospects.
“We started [the tournament] really strong and we’re going to improve in the coming weeks,” Smith said. “[The players] need to get more comfortable playing in [their] new positions.”
The new positions are partly the result of the graduation of five-time All-American Steve Johnson. Johnson was the 2011 NCAA singles champion and a significant contributor to the Trojans’ recent title runs. Despite his absence, the Trojans are ranked No. 2 in the nation and continue to field a dominant squad of players — many of whom are returning from last year’s NCAA title team.
The Trojans face San Diego State for the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Kick-Off Week at Marks Stadium this Friday, Jan. 25, at 1 p.m.