At a school with 113 national championships, perhaps the most impressive active streak belongs to one of the smaller programs at UCLA – the men’s tennis team.
Since the tennis NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999, UCLA has been the only team to make it to the Round of 16 every year, including a national title in 2005 and runner-up finishes in 2004 and 2013. It’s no surprise, then, that coach Billy Martin has the same goals this season.
“I always have pretty high expectations,” said Martin. “But I feel a little bit better going into this season than last, quite honestly.”
Last year, UCLA started the year ranked No. 4 but heavily relied on sophomores and freshmen to fill four of the six slots in the lineup, finishing the year ranked No. 15. The team’s relative inexperience led to some adjustment early in the season, but they rallied to make it to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament before losing a 4-3 thriller to eventual runner-up Oklahoma.
Although they will have to replace recent graduate Dennis Mkrtchian in the No. 2 slot, the Bruins will boast increased depth and experience, especially with the addition of Northwestern transfer sophomore Logan Staggs. A blue chip recruit coming out of high school, Staggs led Northwestern in his freshman year with 25 singles wins between the No. 3 and No. 4 slots in the lineup. With Staggs on board, this year’s singles lineup projects to feature one senior, two juniors and three sophomores.
“Staggs adds a lot of good depth to our lineup,” Martin said. “He had a good fall and showed he can play at a very high level. He’s one of the guys who’s right there looking for a spot three through five. That’ll give us a big help in making our lineup strong from top to bottom.”
Junior co-captain Mackie McDonald, the preseason No. 3 college player in the nation, is expected to again anchor UCLA in the top spot in the lineup. Martin said he was pleased to see McDonald stay for his junior year, as his return had been unclear after a strong summer showing on the ATP Tour.
In the fall, McDonald’s world ranking rose as high as No. 371, the highest of any current collegiate player. The two-time All-American, who narrowly missed out this fall on a wild-card entry into this year’s Australian Open, is arguably the best player in college tennis after defeating last year’s No. 1, Axel Alvarez, in the Round of 16 match against Oklahoma.
“Mackie can compete with anyone in the country,” Martin said. “Mackie and (junior) Gage (Brymer), being our two captains this year, have done a great job showing the rest of the team that we’re ready to battle.”
Sophomore Martin Redlicki participated in several professional tournaments this fall as well, most notably teaming up with McDonald to capture the doubles championship at the Costa Mesa Pro Classic in September. Redlicki, currently ranked No. 48 in collegiate singles, also won the USTA/ITA Southwest Regionals, but suffered a first-round loss in this past weekend’s Sherwood Collegiate Cup.
“As a team, we just want to qualify for the NCAA finals and make it to the Round of 16 in Tulsa,” Redlicki said. “We’ll see where it goes from there but (we’ll) try to make it as deep as we can.”
It will be tough for McDonald and Redlicki to improve on last season, when they went 15-1 and 17-3 in dual match singles play, respectively. UCLA should be strong in doubles, as it returns its top two pairs in McDonald and Redlicki and senior Karue Sell and junior Joseph Di Giulio. Both doubles teams recorded 12 wins last year, but Martin is looking for a third team to step up in dual matches.
UCLA garnered the second-highest preseason national ranking in the Pac-12, coming in behind only No. 8 USC. The Trojans, however, graduated most of their starting lineup from last year, leaving the door open for teams such as the Bruins, the No. 20 Stanford Cardinal, and possibly the No. 21 California Bears to claim the top spot.
UCLA arguably outperformed USC, Stanford and even No. 4 Baylor over the past weekend at the Sherwood Collegiate Cup. Brymer, who reached the singles final in Sherwood, emphasized the importance of starting the season well.
“We want to have a really solid start to the season – we want to go out and play good tennis and not give away anything,” said Brymer. “(Our goal is) to make a statement with this first match that we’re gonna play really solid tennis and be contenders for the national championships at the end of the year.”
Facing the Dons
Following an impressive weekend at the Sherwood, the Bruins will look to extend their success in the first dual match of their season against the University of San Francisco Dons on Wednesday.
The match provides Martin with an opportunity to join the exclusive club of college tennis coaches with 500 career wins.
“Hopefully this will be a good dress rehearsal for this weekend,” Martin said. “It’s important for us to play well and win these two matches on Saturday and Sunday so we can head to Virginia for the national indoor championships.”
On Saturday and Sunday, UCLA hosts the ITA Kick-off Weekend, competing against three other teams for one of 16 spots in February’s USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships, the second-largest tournament of the year behind the NCAA Tournament.