The No. 2 USC men’s tennis team suffered its first loss of the season this weekend, falling to No. 1 Virginia in the finals of the ITA National Team Indoor championships in Seattle, Wash.
The Trojans defeated several ranked opponents, including crosstown rival UCLA, to reach the championship match, but eventually lost 4-2 to the Cavaliers, who were hungry for revenge after losing to the Trojans in last year’s national championship.
In the first round of the tournament, the Trojans swept the No. 15 Texas A&M Aggies 4-0. The next day, the Trojans took down the No. 7 Kentucky Wildcats 4-1 in the quarterfinals. The win against Kentucky set up a semifinal battle between USC and UCLA, ranked just behind the Trojans at No. 3 in the nation.
USC opened up the match by dropping the doubles point for the first time all season. After UCLA’s No. 2 duo defeated sophomore Roberto Quiroz and freshman Max de Vroome 8-3, USC’s No. 3 pair, junior Emilio Gomez and sophomore Eric Johnson, who are ranked No. 49, evened the score with an 8-4 win over their opponents. The Trojans lost the doubles point when junior Ray Sarmiento and sophomore Yannick Hanfmann, ranked No. 48, fell to UCLA’s No. 1 pair 8-4.
USC faced a unique challenge in playing from behind for the first time this season, but some hotly contested wins in singles helped the team secure a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Bruins. Hanfmann, ranked No. 94 in the country, was the only Trojan to win in straight sets, upsetting his opponent, No. 55 Dennis Mkrtchian, 6-4, 6-2 to even the score at 1-1. The five remaining singles matches all went to three sets.
The Bruins regained the lead when Dennis Novikov, ranked No. 58 nationally, upset No. 12 Sarmiento 1-6, 6-3, 6-4. To tie the score up again, No. 46 Johnson defeated Karue Sell 1-6, 7-5, 6-4. Then, No. 10 Gomez beat Marcos Giron, ranked No. 13 nationally, 2-6, 7-5, 6-2 to put USC ahead again. To keep things close, UCLA’s Clay Thompson upset No. 109 de Vroome 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
With the score tied at 3-3, the fate of the match lay in the hands of No. 23 Quiroz. After dropping the first set to Adrien Puget, who is ranked No. 42 nationally, Quiroz came back and won the second set to force a third, which went to a tiebreaker. To the delight of his teammates, Quiroz emerged victorious by a score of 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) to put USC through to the finals of the tournament.
“Any time a player can be in that moment and be successful in that moment, it’s great for them to draw upon,” USC head coach Peter Smith said. “[Quiroz] is a very talented kid and he’s coming of age.”
After winning three matches in three days, USC faced No. 1 Virginia in the finals of the tournament. For the second match in a row and only the second time all season, the Trojans fell behind when they conceded the doubles point to the Cavaliers. Virginia’s No. 15 doubles team of Justin Shane and Ian Uriguen defeated de Vroome and Quiroz 8-3. Then, Gomez and Johnson fell 8-4 to another pair from Virginia, suspending play at the No. 3 spot, where Sarmiento and Hanfmann were about to pull off an upset against a pair from Virginia that was ranked No. 4 nationally.
This time, the Trojans were unable to come back from their early deficit and ended up falling by a 4-2 score. To open up singles play, Gomez fell to the top-ranked player in the nation, Alex Domijan, 6-3, 6-2. Then, Johnson gave the Trojans their first point of the day with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over Justin Shane.
Virginia responded by extending its lead when No. 7 Jarmere Jenkins handed Sarmiento his third loss in as many days by a score of 6-2, 6-4. De Vroome was able to overcome No. 25 Ryan Shane, 7-6 (4), 6-3, but the Cavaliers secured their victory soon after, with Mitchell Frank pulling off the upset over Quiroz, 6-3, 7-5.
“Virginia outplayed us,” Smith said. “They were just a better team today.”
Despite the loss, Smith remained optimistic. After all, the Trojans didn’t go undefeated last season either, and they still ended up winning the national championship. Smith merely sees this as an early test for his team.
“To me, this is all just studying for the final,” Smith said. “We have finals in May … and we didn’t do so well on one of the tests.”
The Trojans look to bounce back from their first loss in a home match against UCLA on Friday at 3 p.m.