For the second time this season and for the first time in official Pac-12 play, the USC men’s tennis team dropped its match 4-2 against crosstown rivals UCLA on Friday at the Los Angeles Tennis Center. The match puts the Trojans at the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 championships, to be held later this week in Ojai, Calif.
The two teams appeared to improve on weaknesses from their previous meeting at Marks Stadium on Feb. 22, when the Trojans lost in a heart-wrenching tiebreak in the final singles match.
Friday’s outcome was considerably less dramatic. The Trojans started strong by picking up the doubles point behind the efforts of freshman Max de Vroome and sophomore Eric Johnson, who won their match 8-3, and sophomore Roberto Quiroz and junior Emilio Gomez, who won 8-6. Sophomore Yannick Hanfmann and junior Ray Sarmiento lost their match in the No. 1 spot 8-6.
The momentum would be short lived, however, as UCLA picked up the next four singles points to clinch the match.
Gomez was unable to replicate his success in doubles and was the first to fall. The junior, ranked No. 4 in the nation by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, was nursing a shoulder injury which severely hampered his on-court efforts. Gomez uncharacteristically missed forehands wide and looked unable to put his full strength behind his shots. He eventually retired midway through the second set trailing 6-0, 2-0.
Sophomore Eric Johnson fell next to emotionally charged UCLA junior Clay Thompson in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3. He was followed at No. 3 by fellow sophomore Yannick Hanfmann, who dropped his match to Bruin junior Adrien Puget 6-1, 6-4.
A huge upset came at the No. 1 position, where junior Ray Sarmiento squared off in a rematch against UCLA sophomore Dennis Novikov. In their last meeting, Sarmiento punished the less-mobile Novikov by neutralizing the Bruin’s strong forehands and serves with deep slices and surgically precise groundstrokes.
In Friday’s rematch, however, Sarmiento was unable to employ the same strategy. Novikov’s first serve, which was erratic in their last meeting, was devastatingly accurate, leading to a number of service aces.
Novikov’s lack of mobility never came under scrutiny. The sophomore almost seemed stationary through some points while launching his booming groundstrokes from the center, and instead it was Sarmiento who was on the run trying to chase down shots. Sarmiento’s 6-4, 6-2 loss would ultimately seal the Trojans’ fate in the match.
There was still tennis to be played, however, and sophomore Jonny Wang was down in his second set when the scoreboard adjacent to his court displayed the determined outcome of the overall team match.
“It’s disappointing,” Wang said on seeing the team’s result midway through his match. “But you have to put that aside and focus on your own match and give it your all.”
Wang fought on valiantly, dispatching UCLA’s redshirt freshman Karue Sell by forcing the unorthodox Sell to his weaker forehand and exploiting Sell’s ineffectual positioning by hitting numerous deep, uncontested winners.
While on the court, Wang was his usual energetic self. But off the court, his trademark ebullience was almost immediately muted by the team’s result.
“I would have gladly lost my [personal] match if it meant the team could win the match,” Wang said.
Wang’s teammate Quiroz adapted a similar temporary oblivion to the team match score during his match against Bruin sophomore Dennis Mkrtchian. Despite dropping the first set, Quiroz would roar back and claim the second set, then dismantle Mkrtchian in tiebreaks with screaming flat forehands for a final score of 5-7, 6-3, 1-0 (10-4).
Barring a monumental upset on either side of the bracket, the Bruins and Trojans will most likely meet once again in the Pac-12 championship final this weekend.
UCLA and USC, by virtue of being the No. 1 and No. 2 seed, respectively, also enjoy a first-round bye and advance automatically to the semifinal round. All eyes will be on Gomez’s shoulder and de Vroome’s wrist this week, with the hopes that the players will return to form in time for postseason play.