The USC men’s tennis team suffered its second defeat of the season Friday in a thrilling match against visiting rival UCLA. Friday was the second matchup in five days between the two teams, who met the previous Sunday in the semifinal round of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s team indoor championships. The Trojans won their match last Sunday, but the Bruins evened the season series at one apiece with a close win on Friday.
There was plenty of excitement surrounding the match, the rivalry between the schools notwithstanding; USC and UCLA are ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the nation, respectively, and both schools have renowned tennis programs. The atmosphere at Marks Stadium carried a fervent intensity from the beginning, as evidenced by the large multitudes of spectators from both schools cheering on their respective squads. Many supporters stood in the walkways and stairs at one point, as the seats were filled to capacity.
The drama of the matches didn’t disappoint, as things got contentious right from the start with the doubles point. With the teams tied 1-1, junior Emilio Gomez and sophomore Eric Johnson fought back from being down 4-1 in their set to force a tiebreak at 8-8. After a hard-fought set, Gomez and Johnson would eventually concede the tiebreak, and subsequently the doubles point, to the UCLA tandem of senior Alex Brigham and sophomore Dennis Mkrtchian.
Most of Friday’s singles play served as a continuation from Sunday’s matches; UCLA rolled out a slightly different order from their meeting on Sunday and pitted Mkrtchian against USC freshman Max de Vroome and junior Clay Thompson against sophomore Yannick Hanfmann, to mixed results. Hanfmann started slow out of the gate and dropped the first set but came back to dominate Thompson 3-6, 6-2, 6-0.
Such success was not the case for de Vroome, who began his match by cruising to a 6-2 first set but faltered in the second and third set en route to his second defeat at the No. 5 position this season, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6. The true freshman, who relied on his screaming forehand winners and powerful serves to overwhelm his opponent, employed sound tactics in the first set forcing Mkrtchian to his backhand and kept the Bruin sophomore on his heels. Midway through the second set, however, unforced errors from de Vroome allowed Mkrtchian back into the match.
“I gave him [Mkrtchian] a chance to get in the match and he is good enough to understand when he has to step up, so he did that very well,” de Vroome said. “He began to hit the balls more with his backhand and, unfortunately, it took me too long to get back in my own game. I don’t think he changed a whole lot, [though] I made it difficult for myself.”
De Vroome’s teammate and captain junior Ray Sarmiento fared better, securing his rematch against UCLA sophomore Dennis Novikov in a workmanlike straight-sets victory, 6-4, 6-3. Sarmiento neutralized Novikov’s powerful forehands and high-velocity serves with expertly employed slice shots and some dazzling, ankle-breaking footwork. Sarmiento’s court-coverage allowed him to take control of points as he punished the less-mobile Novikov and forced the Bruin to his backhand.
“It wasn’t the greatest tennis, but you have to find ways to win,” Sarmiento said. “[Novikov] likes pace, so the strategy against him is to mix it up a lot and utilize all my shots. The slice worked well, and I looked to get him moving.”
In their previous meeting at the ITA Indoor Championships, USC defeated UCLA by a hair’s breadth, clinching the final deciding match in a tiebreak. For the first three and a half hours on Friday, it appeared that history would repeat itself as USC saw itself tied 3-3 with only the match at the No. 2 position between junior Emilio Gomez and Bruin sophomore Marcos Giron remaining.
Gomez began the match strong, clinching the first set, 6-4. He looked to be en route to a well-fought victory up 4-3 in the second set, when Giron called an out for a Gomez lob at a crucial point in the game. The controversial call was missed by the line judge and the momentum seemed to shift in Giron’s favor thereupon. Giron mixed up his approach, employing deep ground strokes and surgically precise drop shots, which ultimately wore Gomez down in the final set as he clinched the victory and the overall match, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(3). Gomez and Giron have played twice this season and now split their matches at one apiece.
USC coach Peter Smith expressed displeasure with his team’s overall performance.
“Bad execution out there, bad tactics. In the end, [UCLA] seized the opportunity and we didn’t,” Smith said. “We have to be experienced enough to take the momentum. Things happen, mistakes are made, calls are made. You have to just keep going [but] we didn’t do a very good job.”
Coming mere moments after suffering such a tough loss to crosstown rivals, Smith, echoing the sentiments of his team, put it best.
“That’s life. You have to learn from it and get better, and we certainly have a lot to learn.”
For more photos visit our gallery here.