A Second Chance
After last year’s 4-3 loss in the finals, UCLA men’s tennis begins NCAA team championship play Friday in Athens, Ga., looking for another chance at the national title. This week, Daily Bruin dives into the stories of three key players on the team who are also riding on a second chance.
By Anay Dattawadkar
Clay Thompson was in no mood to compete as he entered the consolation draw at the 2013 All-American Championships in Tulsa, Okla. Indeed, less than 24 hours before, he’d been ready to leave the place.
After losing his first match and being eliminated from the main draw, Thompson – emotionally drained and physically exhausted – asked UCLA men’s tennis assistant coach Grant Chen to put him on the first flight out of Oklahoma. He was done.
But a conversation with Chen convinced Thompson to stay and play just one more match. And so it was that the senior strode onto the court that October day having resolved that if he was going to spend another day in Tulsa, he might as well have fun doing it. Unburdened, carefree and spontaneous, Thompson won the match in straight sets.
He won the next one, too. And the one after that. In fact, Thompson didn’t stop winning until he had three tournament titles and a 19-game winning streak under his belt. He has lost a grand total of four times in the 46 matches since.
Thompson began the preseason ranked No. 74 nationally, having hovered around the middle of the rankings for the majority of his career. Now, as he and the Bruins prepare to enter the NCAA tournament Round of 16, he has been ranked No. 1 since January.
“This year, I definitely had a sudden realization moment when everything came together and took a 180,” Thompson said.
So what happened? What changed in the course of that one match that so utterly transformed Clay Thompson’s season, career and life? To understand the tangled answer to that question, one must once more journey to Tulsa, to a fall afternoon in 2012 – a full year before Thompson’s remarkable rise.
Clay Thompson entered the 2012 All-American Championships coming off a sophomore year where he had begun to figure life and tennis out, choosing a major and learning to live on his own as his play improved on the court.
For early in his college career, Thompson was a walking contradiction. He was, at 6-foot-6-inches, one of the tallest players in collegiate tennis – but his play was predicated on ground strokes and on-court movement, a style usually favored by significantly shorter players.
He was laid-back and calm off the court, a spontaneous kid with piercing blue eyes who enjoyed spending time with his friends just as much as he liked playing tennis. But on the court, he became snarling and “obnoxious,” consumed by the single-minded pursuit of victory.
“I really treaded the line early in my career,” Thompson said. “I was kind of messed-up mentally. I cared so much on the court, but didn’t care at all off the court.”
He would take summers off, and as coach Billy Martin said, “(He) never really had the hardest work ethic.”
Some of that had changed by the time 2012 rolled around. During his sophomore season, Thompson – who experienced significant success in the No. 1 and No. 2 singles spots – had calmed down a little and was looking forward to continuing his development as a junior.
Life, however, had other things in mind. Crippling back spasms floored Thompson early during the All-American Championships – knocking him out of tennis for 10 to 12 weeks. Just like that, Thompson’s junior season had stalled before it could even begin.
Taking his first respite from the sport he’d played for more than 12 years of his life, Thompson turned introspective and was shocked at how directionless and confused he felt. He asked himself where he would be without tennis; the answer was not reassuring.
“Taking that much time off really opened my eyes,” Thompson said. “I realized how much tennis had done for me, put into perspective how privileged I am through this sport, and made me really honor it a lot more, and really take it seriously. “
That epiphany, however, didn’t make his junior season any easier. The recovering Thompson was demoted to the No. 4 and 5 spots in the singles lineup and was featured sparingly in doubles. And late in the season, on the biggest of stages, Thompson faltered.
Playing in the No. 5 spot in the championship match against Virginia, he lost a match he expected to win – watching in agony as the Bruins dropped the title 4-3. Thompson’s match wasn’t the decider, but his loss was a pivotal one, and he couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d “let his team down” in the most crucial of spots.
“As soon as that match was over, I started looking ahead to the summer,” Thompson said. “I was driven to make sure I didn’t have a year like that again.”
He began by traveling to France in the summer with senior Adrien Puget. Living in a foreign country and playing with professionals was immensely estranging for Thompson, but the unfamiliarity pushed him to mature off the court. Thompson began to understand for the first time the immense commitment that would be required of him as a professional, something he started striving to emulate.
Becoming more mentally devoted to tennis was one component of that. A younger Thompson would often blame his losses on himself, refusing to view them rationally. Over the summer, however, Thompson began to do a sort of meditation after every match, striving to understand his errors and areas for improvement.
“I was practicing with (Clay) way more over this past summer, and I could see that there was something different about him,” said junior Marcos Giron. “There was an extra spark to him … when he was playing it seemed like he cared more, like there was a little extra passion in it.”
In concert with Thompson’s mental evolution was the radical metamorphosis his game underwent. Working with longtime personal coach Scott Bailey, Thompson completely revamped his style of play. He learned to truly “embody his size” and fully leverage his height and massive wingspan, emerging from the summer as a powerful serve-and-volleyer. And it’s worked.
When Thompson is on point, his serve a lethal weapon and his aggressiveness ratcheting up the pressure on his opponents, he is almost unstoppable.
So in a way, that match at the 2013 All-American Championships wasn’t as much a turning point as it was a culminating moment. In Tulsa, Thompson stopped caring, started winning and hasn’t looked back since.