USC always has been, and always will be, one of the most respected athletic programs in the country. A large part of this perception has to do with the football team, of course, but what oftentimes fails to go acknowledged is the variety of spring sports where the Trojans are usually perennial contenders for an NCAA title.
Up until last year this was the case with the USC men’s tennis team. The Trojans won four straight NCAA titles with former player Steve Johnson at the helm from 2009 through 2012, but faltered last season and bowed out in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament. This season, the Trojans kicked the season off ranked No. 5 in the season by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
During my time on the tennis beat during the 2013 spring season, it dawned on me that college tennis wasn’t just great to watch to support the Trojans or as part of my job as a writer for the Daily Trojan — it was that collegiate tennis is an opportunity to catch the game played at an incredibly high level. Though the game played on television by professionals is spellbinding enough, watching a match live and firsthand is an altogether different experience.
What changes most drastically between watching a match on television and watching a match live is the speed of the game. Observing from the usual isometric angle afforded to typical television audiences, the typical tennis match seems like a large game of Pong with human bodies moving back and forth as paddles. Up close, the game is an entirely different beast. Tennis is a thinking man’s game, one that is as cerebral as it is instinctual.
In the live game, the minutiae of the game comes to the forefront: the sweat on the backs of the players, each labored breath between points, the thrill of each blistering serve and each breathless chase-down slice come together to form a type of physical artistry.
And then there’s the drama: each match is a prizefight. The physical punishment of deep, heavy strokes that require extra effort to return, the slumping shoulders and utter despair of the player on the wrong side of an extended point. One player will smell blood, the other will become the prey. There are no excuses in tennis, no moral victories and no consolation for losers. It is man versus man, and man versus himself — the ball serves as an intermediary of wills.
All of these things are true about USC men’s tennis. The varying styles and personalities of all the different players come together on the USC team. There’s a classic big server in sophomore Max de Vroome, a power flat ground stroke player in junior Jonny Wang, a left-handed topspin savant in junior Roberto Quiroz and the cerebral shot-making magician in senior Ray Sarmiento. All of the above mentioned players are nationally ranked by the ITA in singles play, and each of their styles will be on display as the Trojans look to capture their fifth NCAA title in six years.
Tennis as a collegiate sport is perhaps more immediately affected by recruiting than any other college sport: one strong recruit can turn the tide and bring a wave of success, much in the same way Johnson did for the Trojans and former ITA Singles No. 1 Alex Domijan did for the University of Virginia in the Cavaliers’ 2013 national title campaign.
To that effect, the Trojans will be bringing in freshman Robbie Bellamy, who was rated as a blue-chip player, and freshman Nicholas Crystal, who was rated a five-star prospect by TennisRecruiting.com. Crystal was ranked as the No. 1 player in the state of New York, and Bellamy was the No. 9 high school player in the nation.
But winning and supporting the Trojan family shouldn’t be the only reason to attend men’s tennis matches this semester. It’s truly a beautiful game, a glorious athletic spectacle. Though interest in tennis in America is still a tough sell without the involvement of Serena Williams, the game remains one of the last bastions of grace and tradition in a sports world mired with me-first team athletes and supercharged egos. It’s a game that prizes agility, grace and precision over outright aggression, and in that way it possesses a timeless beauty.
The USC men’s tennis team kicks off its 2014 quest for a title Saturday at Marks Stadium against the Santa Clara Broncos at 11 a.m. I’m not a beat writer for the tennis team anymore. But you might find me there taking in the beautiful game and cheering on the Trojans.
Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. His column Euno What Time It Is runs Wednesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.