Throughout the course of the season, USC men’s tennis head coach Peter Smith has emphasized the importance of adversity and its positive effects.
If adversity is a good thing, it was a great weekend for the Trojans, who, despite the absence of two starters and injuries to two more key players, pulled out two decisive victories including a 7-0 sweep of Arizona on Friday and a 5-2 win over Utah on Saturday.
In both matches the Trojans were without the services of junior Emilio Gomez and sophomore Roberto Quiroz. The pair, dubbed “Team Ecuador” by Smith, was playing for the Ecuadorian national team in Davis Cup play.
In addition to the absences of two starters, freshman Max de Vroome was still recovering from a broken left wrist and played with a specially designed brace. Junior Michael Grant also struggled with an abdominal injury, which flared up during the match and rendered him unable to overhead serve against Utah’s sophomore Cedric Willems. The significant handicap hampered Grant, who fought valiantly but eventually fell 6-3, 7-5.
“[My abdominal muscle] just started cramping up, so I just started serving underhand,” Grant said. “We had nobody else who could take my place so I just had to man up and play, win or lose. I gave it my best effort.”
Court two featured a duel between two heavyweights as sophomore Yannick Hanfmann took on Utah’s Slim Hamza. Hamza, who had upset UCLA’s No. 2 junior Adrien Puget 7-5, 6-4 the day prior, was in search of his second straight upset against Hanfmann.
But while Hamza fought admirably, Hanfmann controlled the outcome of the match from the outset. In the first set, Hanfmann mixed up his approach against his opponent, utilizing deep, heavy strokes with blistering, razor-sharp angled shots. When Hamza tried to shorten points by flattening his shots, Hanfmann ended the points with his own whistling forehand winners en route to a 7-5, 6-2 victory.
Hanfmann’s teammate and captain junior Ray Sarmiento was dominant in his outing against Utah senior Dmytro Mamedov. Sarmiento handled his match by flattening out early and forcing Mamedov to pursue high-velocity groundstrokes. Mamedov was often relegated to slicing or forced to settle with making contact with his outstretched arm while in pursuit of the icy Sarmiento’s endless hail of powerful, flat forehands.
The match seemed to go as quickly as Sarmiento’s feet — the 6-1, 6-1 drubbing lasted a mere 68 minutes.
“My movement was working really well for me today. I was serving really well and looked for my opportunities to come in. My game plan was to come in and take the point really early. Keep the points as short as possible and keep him moving,” Sarmiento said.
Even more dominant than Sarmiento was sophomore Eric Johnson, who utterly bulldozed Utah junior Alejandro Medinilla in a 6-0, 6-0 match that lasted little more than an hour. The 6-0, 6-0 victory was possibly the most impressive performance of the season from any Trojan, but Johnson remained humble and comprehensive in his description of his strategy.
“Staying focused was the hardest thing,” Johnson said. “I think my game fit him pretty well. He had a one-handed backhand that’s sort of weaker and my style is to play to attack the backhand.”
Sophomore Jonny Wang got the start at No. 4 and handled his responsibilities in dominant fashion, upending Utah junior Devin Lane 6-4, 6-3 with a high-energy style of play and emotional intensity that has endeared him to many USC tennis fans.
Rhe Trojans weren’t quite done after Saturday’s match. Smith, assistant coaches Krzysztof Kwinta and Peter Lucassen and the rest of the USC tennis team met and hit some balls with the ballboys and ballgirls at the match. The ballboys and ballgirls were organized by a USC alumnus to give them an opportunity to meet the tennis team.
“I think one of the biggest responsibilities we have is to give back. We invite the kids out and they get to ballkid the match, and then they get a chance to meet the players and hit with the players after the match,” Smith said. “The incredible thing about that is that it’s against the NCAA rules. How amazing is that? They’re saying it might be a recruiting advantage for us.”
The NCAA might not have too many concerns in that regard — none of the ballkids appeared to be older than six years of age.
And though the Trojans took care of important Pac-12 conference matches Friday and Saturday, perhaps it was what they did after the competition that was most important.