Usually Pac-12 play doesn’t begin until late March for the UCLA men’s tennis team, but this year its first conference competition comes just six matches into the season.
Today’s match against the No. 18 Stanford Cardinal is also the Bruins’ first match this season against a top-25 team, representing a level of talent UCLA is expecting to face during the entire conference.
Stanford has won 18 NCAA titles over the years, and even though the Cardinal are not expected to do as well this season, UCLA coach Billy Martin understands that these rivalry games are never easy.
“They’re always tough battles,” Martin said. “These are great traditions in our sport, and they always come ready to beat up on the Bruins, so we’re looking forward to playing them.”
This weekend, UCLA will also continue conference play against No. 13 California on Saturday. The Bruins will face both the Bears and the Cardinal again on the road in late March, making this weekend’s home matchups all the more vital.
With five teams in the top 25 this year, the Pac-12 is once again among the best conferences in the country.
Martin is not at all surprised to see so many teams ranked high at the start of the season, and this weekend should show whether or not the Bruins are up to the challenge.
“I think Cal might be the better of the two teams this year,” Martin said. “But hopefully we can get a win against Stanford first.”
Stanford is coming off a loss against unranked Texas Christian University last Tuesday, making its match against UCLA even more crucial for its season.
Coming off his best match of the season, redshirt freshman Karue Sell is looking to sustain his high level of play against the Cardinal.
“They are always a strong team, so we know it’s going to be a good matchup and I’m looking forward to it,” Sell said.
Sophomore Dennis Novikov views the strong competition in the Pac-12 as a benefit because it allows the Bruins to prove themselves during the regular season.
“It’s good that our division is competitive so that we are ready for NCAAs,” Novikov said.
Last season, UCLA went 7-0 in conference play, including victories against both Stanford and Cal. This year, its schedule has been expanded to 10 conference matches.
Because of the amount of quality teams the Bruins will face in the Pac-12, their level of success in conference play should help determine their postseason achievements.
“I think we have one of the strongest conferences in tennis,” Sell said. “If we are able to beat everyone in the Pac-12, I think we are able to beat everyone in the nation.”
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