USC’s men’s tennis team is back on top.
After defeating crosstown rival UCLA last weekend, the Trojans (25-2, 7-0 Pac-12) earned the top seed in the Pac-12 Tournament and moved up to the No. 1 ranking in the nation.
In the match against No. 5 UCLA (20-3, 6-1), USC made a swift recovery from dropping the doubles point by coming out strong in singles.
Junior Yannick Hanfmann, currently ranked No. 13 in the nation by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, knocked off UCLA’s No. 1 Clay Thompson in straight sets. The Trojans also got wins from juniors Eric Johnson and Roberto Quiroz as well as sophomore Max de Vroome in the 4-2 victory over the Bruins.
“Those four guys led us — Yannick, Roberto, Max and Eric,” said USC head coach Peter Smith. “To play in that kind of atmosphere against your big rival and rise to the occasion, you’ve got to feel good about that.”
With the resounding comeback victory, USC completed an undefeated Pac-12 run this season, earned the top seed in the conference tournament and extended its win streak to 16 consecutive matches.
The Trojans earned a first-round bye and will take on the No. 19 California Golden Bears today in the semifinals of the tournament. The Bears (15-6, 4-3) defeated Utah, 4-0, in Thursday’s quarterfinals to advance to the semifinals against USC.
Earlier this season, the Trojans hosted the Bears and pulled off an easy 4-0 victory behind impressive doubles play and wins in singles by senior co-captain Ray Sarmiento as well as Johnson and de Vroome.
Though Sarmiento played a key role in that victory, he has underperformed in conference matches this season. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. native peaked at No. 3 in the national rankings in March, but a 2-4 record in Pac-12 play, including three losses to unranked players, has caused him to drop to No. 10.
Still, Smith has faith in the three-time All-American.
“He’s struggled as of late, but the one thing I know about Ray is when you least expect it, expect it,” Smith said. “He has a ton of experience, a ton of talent and he’s working hard.”
Despite Sarmiento’s losing record in Pac-12 singles competition, he and Hanfmann have ascended to the top spot in the national doubles rankings. The duo entered the season unranked in the national polls, but has won nine straight matches and put together a 13-1 record overall.
“We’re just communicating with each other and doing what works for the both of us,” Sarmiento said. “Our chemistry on court has definitely improved from last year, and we are just playing freely.”
Hanfmann and Sarmiento have an impressive supporting cast behind them, as Johnson and de Vroome have also lit up the doubles scene this season. Though they are unranked, the teammates have put together a 22-9 record, including a 15-4 mark in dual-match play.
Senior co-captain Michael Grant and freshman Nick Crystal are ranked No. 64 in the nation together despite no longer playing with each other. Crystal has played the last eight matches with Quiroz, with the pair going 7-1.
More impressive than his success in doubles is Quiroz’s singles play this season. Ranked No. 43 in the nation by the ITA, the Ecuador native has won 16 straight matches and has only lost one match since dual match play began in January.
By the numbers, the Trojans far outmatch their opponents today, with six ranked singles players and two ranked doubles teams.
Cal’s Ben McLachlan is the team’s only ranked singles player, sitting at No. 61 in the national polls. The Bears’ Gregory Bayane and Chase Melton are ranked No. 23 in doubles, while McLachlan and Andre Goransson are ranked No. 85.
Should the Trojans top the Bears for a second time this season, they would move into the finals, where they will likely face the Bruins again. After the team’s resounding victory against UCLA last Friday, Smith likes his team’s chances heading into the tournament.
“We can beat them again,” Smith said. “It’s funny, we got pushed against the wall, and we decided to come out punching. And that’s the attitude we have to have, even when we’re up … Just having that mindset of not waiting for anybody to give us anything, not being afraid of the situation.”
USC’s match against Cal kicks off today at noon in Ojai, Calif. The championship match will begin at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Despite the fact that USC has already locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which begins next month, Smith and his team are looking forward to playing this weekend.
“A lot of people would shy away from this match,” Smith said. “I know that what is good for us is adversity. It’s a little easier to turn off the alarm and roll over and snuggle under the covers, but if you want to be the best and you want to achieve the goals that we’ve set for ourselves, you’ve got to put yourself in a tough spot. So we look forward to it, and you’ve got to embrace it.”