Men’s and women’s tennis compete away from home

Senior Riley Smith paired with junior Daniel Cukierman to help deliver the Trojans the ITA National Team Indoor Championship. (Daily Trojan File Photo)

The USC men’s tennis team traveled to Madison, Wis., this past weekend and triumphed over some of the toughest competition in the country to take home the ITA National Team Indoor title. Over 1,300 miles away, the then-No. 19 USC women’s team fell to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the USTA College MatchDay event in Orlando, Fla. 

Last week the men’s team experienced its fair share of ups and downs. After ranking No. 1 in the nation, the Trojans lost to the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes. USC bounced back during its next match against Wisconsin and presumably hoped to carry the momentum from that win into the ITA National Team Indoor Tournament, an event the Trojans hadn’t won since 2012.

USC took its top players to the competition: then-No. 1 junior Daniel Cukierman, No. 15 sophomore Mor Bulis, No. 24 senior Brandon Holt, No. 33 senior Riley Smith, No. 65 freshman Stefan Dostanic, No. 69 freshman Ryder Jackson and sophomore Bradley Frye all traveled to Madison. 

In the Round of 16 Friday, USC had a minor scare during a match against then-No. 11 TCU. The Trojans dug themselves into a 2-1 deficit early, with their lone point coming from Dostanic. Fortunately for USC, Smith, Bulis and Cukierman all fought back, winning the match 4-2.  

In the quarterfinals, the Trojans faced a familiar foe in the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal, who the Trojans easily handled 6-1 earlier this season. USC repeated the performance Saturday, winning 4-0. 

Later, during an intense semifinal against then-No. 13 Michigan, USC fell into a 3-1 hole with its only point coming from Smith. Once again, the Trojans did not back down, as Dostanic, Jackson and Cukierman won their matches to deliver the Trojans a 4-3 victory. 

“We are not quitters,” head coach Brett Masi said after the match. “It just shows the amount of heart and desire that these guys have, and [our] never — say — done mentality.” 

After defeating Michigan, USC faced then-No. 5 North Carolina in the tournament’s finals. The Tar Heels were coming off an impressive victory against Ohio State, sweeping the Buckeyes 4-0.

In doubles play against UNC, it came down to the wire as the two teams were tied 1-1. The No. 58 partnership of Cukierman and Smith was able to seal the deal against UNC senior William Blumberg and sophomore Brian Cernoch in a tiebreaker 7-6 (5).

In singles, the Trojans started off slow as Holt retired in his match against Blumberg because of illness, which tied up the score 1-1. This didn’t faze the Trojans. Cukierman, Dostanic and Bulis all proceeded to win in straight sets against their opponents, winning the final 4-1.

“Inspirational, one-of-a-kind, never seen anything like it,” Masi said. “We were very sick, we have injuries, we have everything, [but] every guy on the team stepped up and did their part, and if it wasn’t for that courageous effort, we don’t get it done [today].”

Masi said he thinks the win will provide a confidence boost for the squad.

“Winning the national indoors definitely is something that’s a goal, and they are going to look at it and [say], ‘This is a super special moment,’” Masi said. “The way we won it and how we did it, that just builds us and gives us more and more confidence.”

While the men’s team competed in Madison, the women’s team faced off against Notre Dame as part of the USTA’s College MatchDay event. USC freshmen Eryn Cayetano and Payton Saca; sophomores Estella Jaeger and No. 119 Danielle Willson; and seniors No. 108 Sydney Van Alphen and No. 15 Angela Kulikov represented USC at the event. In a hard-fought match, USC fell 4-3 to the Irish. The Trojans went up early, winning the doubles point thanks to the partnerships of Jaeger and Willson and Cayetano and Kulikov. However, in singles play, the Irish came back, quickly winning two points in a row as Saca and Willson both fell. Still, the Trojans were relentless, as Cayetano beat junior Cameron Corse in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, and Kulikov won in similar fashion against senior Zoe Spence, 6-4, 6-2. 

Up 3-2, the Trojans only needed one more win to take the matchup; however, the team failed to cement the victory. Van Alphen lost to No. 122 junior Ally Bojczuk, 6-4, 3-6, 1-6, and Jaeger lost in a tight match against redshirt sophomore Julia Lilien, losing a tiebreaker in the final set, 6-3, 4-6, 6-7 (3).

The men’s team will now look ahead to weekend matches against Army and Air Force at Marks Stadium while the women’s team will prepare to face San Diego State and UCSD Friday and Saturday on the road.