It always hurts to lose to a rival.
But for the UCLA men’s tennis team, Saturday’s 4-1 road loss to No. 5 USC provided signs of encouragement.
“I’m not super disappointed – I don’t like losing to them but I know they’re a great team,” said coach Billy Martin. “I think we’re close. I mean, we’ve got to keep improving but do I think we have a chance the next time we play them? Yes.”
Although the 4-1 score suggests a blowout, No. 14 Bruins (8-6) kept the match close throughout.
After dropping the doubles point with losses at No. 1 and No. 3 doubles, the Bruins then fell behind 2-0 with a quick 6-0, 6-0 loss by redshirt junior Ryoto Tachi at No. 6 singles. Senior co-captain Dennis Mkrtchian, ranked 33rd nationally in singles, responded with a commanding 6-4, 6-3 upset over USC’s Roberto Quiroz, ranked 20th.
Sophomore Gage Brymer dropped his match at No. 5 singles, putting the Bruins down 3-1 with three matches still in progress.
Sophomore Mackenzie McDonald and freshman Martin Redlicki were in the early stages of third sets at No. 1 and No. 3 singles, respectively, as junior co-captain Karue Sell pushed USC’s Jonny Wang to a tiebreak in the second set at No. 4, providing a glimmer of hope for UCLA. But Wang closed out the tiebreak 7-4, earning himself a Gatorade bath from his Trojan teammates in the 90-degree afternoon heat and causing the No. 1 and No. 3 singles matches to be abandoned.
Martin said it was encouraging that his team had a chance to beat a team that has won five of the last six national titles and, until a recent upset at the hands of Tulsa, was ranked No. 1 this year.
“We’ve just got to be positive about how we feel; we were close to one of the top teams, I mean that’s a team that could certainly win the NCAA championships,” Martin said. “If we really want to duck our heads and feel really horrible, we can do that. But I won’t.”
Mkrtchian said he saw plenty of positives as well.
“If doubles went another way or if something else happened, (if) we win the second set with Karue, anything can change,” Mkrtchian said. “You don’t want to play the ‘what if’ game but by no means are we crushed – this is just going to make us stronger … We’re right there – every match that we lose, we’re literally right there, this match was no different.”
The team will have another chance to beat USC when they play the Trojans at home on April 16.
“One of the things that we talked about after is they’re a beatable team,” Brymer said. “As much as they took it to us today, I think we saw a lot in them that we can work on in our practice to come back and play a stronger match the next time we play them.”