Trojans look for strong start in Napa Valley Tennis Challenge

For the first time since bringing home their second NCAA national title in a row, four players will represent the USC men’s tennis team to begin the individual season.

Senior Jaak Poldma, junior Daniel Nguyen, sophomore JT Sundling and freshman Ray Sarmiento will represent the Trojans at the 10th annual Napa Valley Tennis Challenge in St. Helena, Calif.

Texas, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois and Cal will field four-man teams in the weekend tournament to round out the field.

Along with a total of 24 college athletes, eight U.S. Tennis Association-selected junior players — including U.S. Open Junior Singles Champion Jack Sock — will participate.

“It’s a different format with junior players participating, and it is very different at this point,” USC coach Peter Smith said. “It’s most important to play matches and get experience.”

The format of the tournament is unique in that the 32-man field will be separated into 8 groups. The players will participate in round-robin group play and the group winner will advance to an eight-man playoff on Sunday.

Each match in the playoff will deviate from normal match play, with each match decided by a 10-point tiebreak until a tournament winner is determined.

The USTA will grant the champion a wild-card spot in a professional tournament.

When asked about how he decided who to send to the tournament, Smith said he was open-minded in his process.

“[I picked the four for] no particular reason,” Smith said. “I wanted Nguyen and Sundling to play some matches, and [Poldma] expressed interest in playing. They are all potential starters, and I wanted to get them going.”

The team began practice one week following a very busy schedule, which included a trip to the White House and the championship ring ceremony commemorating last year’s title.

“We have had one week of practice, the team is brand new, but it looks great,” Smith said. “Everyone is focused, motivated and worked very hard. There has been a big willingness to work hard at practice.”

Robert Farah — the ITA Player of the Year last season — has moved on to the professional ranks, but the new-look Trojans have three new freshmen who have helped fill the significant void.

“The team is very much the same, and we have some really good new players,” Poldma said.

As one of two seniors on the current squad, Poldma mentioned that participating will help him get back into tennis rhythm after some time off.

“I’m trying to get better and get back to my game,” Poldma said. “I have not played in tournaments for a while, so I would like to get the feel back.”

Overall, the team has shown a good attitude during the week of practice, and Smith said the players are motivated to maintain the high standard they have set for themselves.

“It’s been exciting,” Smith said. “We have a completely different team, but there is a great feeling on the court. We have got to stay hungry, and the hunger is there.”