This weekend, the No. 3 Trojans (4-0) will head into the Texas heat for this year’s ITA National Team Indoor Championships in Houston, with their first match coming today at 3 p.m. against No. 14 Tennessee.
Around this time last year, USC’s men’s tennis team experienced its first loss of the 2013 season against No. 1 Virginia in the championship match of last year’s tournament in Seattle. The team hopes that its luck will be different this time around.
After last weekend’s showdown with Stanford was cancelled due to rain, the Trojans will enter the first game of the tournament after an almost two-weeks off. Still, USC head coach Peter Smith believes the time off has prepared them well going forward.
“This game is bigger than Stanford, so we’re ready to go,” Smith said. “The team’s in a great place. [Now] the season is really starting.”
Though the Trojans are ranked 11 spots ahead of Tennessee, the Volunteers are worthy opponents having qualified for the ITA National Indoors for the last six seasons. Tennessee’s talent has impressed Smith.
“The guys were already sizing each other up,” Smith said. “[We are] ready for a chance to see all the other teams and feel the intensity of the tournament.”
In regards to the tournament as a whole, however, both Smith and senior captain Ray Sarmiento aren’t looking any farther than round one.
“[I’m taking it] one match at a time,” Sarmiento said. [I will] take care of each game and practice … [and] the results will come.”
Sarmiento has been stellar so far this season, not dropping a single set in singles play. He and doubles partner junior Yannick Hanfmann have also delivered at the top spot so far this season, and recently jumped to the No. 35 ranking in the country together. Smith, when asked about Sarmiento, focused on his growth and leadership position.
“We just need him to lead the team, with his head and his heart,” Smith said.
Sarmiento is ranked No. 7 in the nation in singles, and is joined on the national rankings list by Hanfmann at No. 16 and junior Jonny Wang at No. 47. Despite outstanding performances in singles and doubles play so far this season, junior Roberto Quiroz fell out of the latest rankings.
The Trojans earned a No. 4 preseason ranking, but after sweeping then-No. 3 Georgia in the Pac-12/SEC Showdown, USC moved up to the third spot in the country. But the team and coaching staff consistently downplay these rankings.
“The program is used to being No. 1,” Smith said. “[We] don’t get excited about No. 3. [I am] excited about how good [the team is] and how tough they are.”
With this weekend’s tournament being played indoors, there are a number of new conditions to which the team will have to adjust. There are no indoor tennis courts near campus for the Trojans to practice on, so the team has had to simulate indoor conditions as best as they could — even going as far as to practice with sunglasses on.
The environment might be different, but the Trojans think it could still be beneficial.
“Playing indoors really adds to the excitement,” Sarmiento said. “You get to play like this once a year, and it’s definitely different. There’s a different feel, a different type of game, and you just do your best with the courts. I think we have a really good indoor team.”
Another adjustment the Trojans have had to deal with is the experimental scoring system college tennis teams have been using for the last two months. As always, teams will be vying for four team points, but the match scoring is slightly different. The three doubles matches to start the contest will be played as six-game sets, instead of eight-game sets. Matches will feature no-ad scoring and a tiebreakers if tied at 5-5. Six singles matches will then be played, each worth one team point. Matches will be best-of-three sets with no-ad scoring. Rules will return to NCAA format after this tournament.
A first-round win over the Volunteers this afternoon would take the Trojans to a Saturday quarterfinal matchup against either No. 6 Baylor or No. 11 Texas A&M. If the Trojans advance further, the semifinals are set for Sunday, and the championship match will take place at noon on Monday.