It was late February 2020, and the No. 1 Trojans men’s tennis team just ousted Oregon with help from the determined duo of Daniel Cukierman and Riley Smith who took down the No.11 doubles team in the nation. This was the last time these two Trojans would be partnered together for the year, as their season got cut short following coronavirus lockdowns just as they were gaining momentum.
Despite time away from traditional training, Cukierman and Smith did not sit back; they practiced to prepare for whenever they could resume playing. In spite of
training separately during the off-season while in different continents and coming back in the following season with coronavirus restrictions, they maintained their place as one of the top doubles teams in their final season together, capping off their successful collegiate tennis career.
Before the 2019-20 season was abruptly halted, the duo was ranked No. 5. Even though Smith did not have to travel far to get back to his home in Long Beach, Cukierman had to travel across the globe to get to his hometown of Tel Aviv, Israel.
“I think it was definitely a different preparation, but overall it was kind of tough to finish it early, the season last year … but we really did believe as a team we can continue the good form as long as we all practiced hard back home,” Cukierman said. “We were all trying to play in as many tournaments as we could, so I was able to play some national tournaments in Israel and actually was able to play in Europe.”
Despite being away from campus and unable to train together for an extended period of time, the doubles team came prepared this year and were ranked No. 1 in the early January preseason rankings. When the next doubles rankings came out on March 24, Smith and Cukierman had only dropped one place to No. 2.
Between this time, the duo most notably beat rivals UCLA in the ITA Kickoff Weekend and Texas & TCU at the ITA Indoor Championships.
This strong performance on the courts at the start of the season can be attributed to the hard work they put in on their own while being away from campus during the unprecedented break.
“We [Smith and Cukierman] were both on our own — kind of — own training schedules. Playing in individualized tournaments and that sort of thing on our own,” Smith said. “So, we were always in touch, but it was definitely a little out of the ordinary.”
Having that type of consistent training was key to their success as a pair. They continued their impressive season together with wins against difficult opponents such as Arizona State’s nationally-ranked No. 42 duo at the time of Nathan Ponwith and George Stoupe.
Nevertheless, despite having these successes as a tandem, Smith and Cukierman still dropped a couple more matches toward the end of the regular season which caused them to go down to No. 14 in the rankings.
Although they could not end their regular season on the same note they started, this did not deter their confidence going into the postseason in both the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.
They both sought to bounce back from the adversity they faced so far during their last dance, as they won all their doubles matches in the team tournaments taking down top-tier opponents such as Virginia’s No. 14 doubles team of Carl Soderland and William Woodall, and the No. 11 Longhorn duo of Eliot Spizzirri and Siem Woldeab in a thrilling tiebreaker win.
Although they only became a Trojans top doubles team back at the start of the 2019-2020 season when current head coach Brett Masi joined, they quickly worked alongside each other to rise as one of the best pairings in the nation. Taking on the roll of the teams’ veterans helped strengthen their performance on the courts, setting an example for the rest of the team.
Overall, their ability to persevere and rebound from the losses they faced in the regular season showcased their maturity as some of collegiate tennis’ best players. Instead of focusing on the outcomes of previous matches, the duo simply concentrated on winning the matchup at hand.
Cukierman said he and Riley and the rest of the team were able to bring out the best in each other in the face of adversity.
“We had a couple disappointments, but I think it’s easier when you have a supportive team,” Cukierman said. “Riley and I, we were the leaders I would say this year … and we just push each other to do better and be better players to help the team.”
Masi echoed similar sentiments of how the doubles team persisted during the season and did not get distracted by any losses that they faced, rather using their losses as a learning opportunity to grow as players.
“I mean look, in tennis at times you lose, and if you didn’t have the ability to put in the blinders and go out and compete, you wouldn’t be as successful as [Smith and Cukierman] ,” Masi said. “In any sport whether you are a tennis player, golfer, basketball player, you name it, you got to be able to take losses and use them for good and try to improve and get better.”
Once the Trojans NCAA team tournament run ended, the pair immediately prepared for the NCAA individual tournament where both players competed in singles and doubles. They made the quarterfinals, making them the first USC duo to do so since 2012.
To get there, they had to knock off two top 10 nationally-ranked teams, the first being No. 8 ranked Juan Carlos Aguilar and Bjorn Thomson from Texas A&M in the Round of 32. Then, in the Round of 16, they won against TCU’s Luc Fomba and Alastair Gray, the No. 2 partnership in the nation. This triumph over the country’s second-best doubles team sent them to the quarterfinals.
It was here where their postseason winning streak ended in a tiebreaker upset against the No. 26 Auburn team of Tad Maclean and Finn Murgett.
Getting ready for their part of the tournament right after witnessing the team face a heartbreaking loss at such a late stage did not deter the duo. Cukierman and Smith knew once again that they could not hang on to the past. As their last ride together, they knew they had to focus on the final doubles tournament together and simply have fun.
“I mean I think that it was a hard one to deal with losing to Texas, but in doubles specifically we had a lot of fun playing together,” Smith said. “For me, it was one of the last tournaments I will play, so it was easy for me to get up and be ready for that event.”
On top of their impressive season together, the duo’s performance and leadership helped improve the play of other players on the team such as junior Bradley Frye. The Kansas native who was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week in March, went on an unbeaten doubles streak this season with sophomore Stefan Dostanic until the Pac-12 tournament finals against Arizona State.
He cites the guidance of Smith and Cukierman and playing against them in practice as part of the reason he had success on the courts this season, especially in doubles with Dostanic.
“I think for us, Stefan and I, to be able to compete with them [Smith and Cukierman] every single day not only helped us but I think helped them,” Frye said. “I think seeing how they worked together as a team and kinda figured out each other’s strengths and weaknesses that definitely helped Stefan and I. And once we started to get on a roll, we were able to challenge them a lot more.”
Masi, who witnessed their growth, respects the players they have become today.
He called Cukierman a “very good leader in terms of his work ethic, in terms of his contributions to the team,” and an impactful member of the team. Masi, who has known Smith since he was five-years-old, emphasized how hard Smith worked on a daily basis.
As a doubles team this season, Cukierman and Smith put up a 23-5 record in their final outing. Despite hiccups in the regular season, they stayed afloat as one of the nation’s top duos, which they eventually proved in the postseason. Due to their impressive performance all the way to the NCAA quarterfinals, both Cukierman and Smith were given ITA All-American honors showcasing the great work they put into this tumultuous season.
“I mean, me and Daniel, we definitely wanted to finish better than the quarterfinals, but we left it all out there. And that’s all you can do sometimes,” Smith said.