Though Westwood and Athens, Ga., are over 2,000 miles apart, UCLA coach Billy Martin is no stranger to the national prominence of the Georgia men’s tennis program.
Having fallen at the hands of the Bulldogs in three NCAA Championships as a coach, Martin will once again bring his Bruins to Athens, Ga. this weekend. This time, the visit to Athens won’t mark the Bruins’ final test of the season, but their first, as UCLA faces No. 7 Georgia (2-0) and No. 17 Florida (3-1) in the South Eastern Conference/Pac-12 Challenge.
“It’s going to be a much higher level of competition for us than our first three matches at home,” Martin said. “Especially that Georgia match will be in hostile territory. They’re usually pretty tough on anybody that comes into town.”
Athens has been the site of 28 NCAA men’s tennis championships, routinely drawing upwards of 10,000 fans per meet, including a record 34,184 to the 1993 final. The city’s beloved Bulldogs’ six national titles have produced a fan base that Martin said might be the best in college tennis.
Martin knows this well, having fallen to Georgia in three NCAA finals in Athens – in 1985, 1987, and 1999. Last year, his team traveled there for the NCAA championship, only to lose to Oklahoma in the semifinals. He expects the site to produce two more tough matches this weekend, as he said his team will have to improve on its play from last weekend’s ITA Kickoff victories against No. 53 Pepperdine (1-1) and No. 48 Texas Tech (6-2).
“If we play at that level this weekend, I don’t believe we’re going to have much success,” Martin said. “What I’m looking for as a coach is not necessarily the wins and losses, but are we getting better, are we making less of the unforced errors?”
With three of the top players gone from last year’s squad, junior and team co-captain Karue Sell said the tough early-season matchups against the Bulldogs and Gators will help the Bruins assess their prospects for the season.
“The last two or three years, we’ve had such a quality team that, most of our matches, we knew we were going to win no matter what because we had such a deep lineup,” Sell said. “But this year, we’re a young, scrappy team and I think playing these teams early in the season will let us know if we are good enough to be national title contenders.”
One positive for UCLA will be the return of sophomore Gage Brymer, who missed the team’s first three matches after his mother died of cancer on Jan. 21. Brymer will help deepen the Bruin lineup as the team prepares to play two top-25 teams in less than 24 hours, with the Georgia match on Saturday and the Florida match on Sunday.
“We won’t have much time to recover, but if that affects our match, that just means we weren’t in great shape,” Martin said. “But we’ll be indoors, and indoor fast courts generally don’t create the long points that outdoor courts do, so conditioning sometimes is not quite as much of a factor.”
Sell said the indoor setting could enhance the effect of the Bulldogs’ renowned crowd.
“It might be even a little more hostile because there’s less space and the fans will fill it up and maybe be closer to the courts too,” Sell said. “It’s fun though because tennis usually doesn’t get that much of a crowd.”