Heavy rain may have cancelled Sunday’s matches, but it’s going to take a lot more to cool down the UCLA men’s tennis team.
In a highly anticipated matchup, No. 12 UCLA soundly defeated No. 6 Georgia 6-1 in the first leg of the SEC/Pac-12 Showdown on Saturday. Junior Mackenzie McDonald, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, returned from a wrist fracture, and clinched UCLA’s win with an emphatic ace to close out his three-set victory at No. 1 singles.
“I think it’s a huge confidence booster,” McDonald said. “I don’t think many of us expected to kill them like this or even beat them, before this weekend. So for us to go out there and beat them 6-1 – that shows a lot. (It shows) we have potential, and we can be a strong team this year – we’ll prove it.”
Heading into Saturday, coach Billy Martin was unsure if his star player would be available. McDonald warmed up two hours before the match began, and only an hour before, told Martin he was ready for the doubles matchup. McDonald reiterated he was feeling healthy enough to compete in singles, and his return fired up the rest of the team for their matches.
“I think Mackie stepping up and playing for us today was the thing we needed, quite honestly,” Martin said. “The guys – just seeing him out there playing well in the doubles, gave us a little bit more confidence. Even me as a coach, I felt pretty good knowing he was there. I didn’t expect him to play quite so well, but (McDonald and sophomore Martin Redlicki) played great doubles in my opinion. He obviously must have played pretty good singles because (Georgia’s) Austin Smith is a really good player.”
Before the weekend, McDonald was worried his wrist injury might affect his backhand – and it did, at least to start the match. In the first set, several of his backhands ended up in the net, leading to a rare show of frustration from the usually level-headed McDonald.
“(At the beginning), I was very tentative with it,” McDonald said. “I’m still kind of scared to hit it sometimes because I just haven’t hit it in a while and I don’t have my strength back. It’s weak, but it did come out clutch when I needed it to.”
In the second and third sets, McDonald regained his composure and methodically broke down
the nation’s No. 28 singles player, Smith, eventually winning 2-6, 6-4, 6-2.
“He really has sort of a Federer-ish type of personality out there – you can’t tell if he’s winning or losing just from his body language,” Martin said. “That’s sort of been his persona, I think, from even in juniors when I used to watch him and recruit him.”
In doubles, McDonald teamed with Redlicki to defeat the No. 10 pair in the country, the Bulldogs’ Smith and Ben Wagland, in merely 20 minutes. UCLA secured the doubles point half an hour later when junior Gage Brymer and sophomore Austin Rapp won in a tiebreaker 7-6(2) on court three against Georgia’s Wayne Montgomery and Emil Reinberg.
Once singles play started, Martin spent all his time on the back three courts, which he said are going to be crucial for the Bruins. It was unusual for Martin, who in previous years has spent most of his time on the front courts.
“Right now I think we’re gonna win or lose matches because of four, five and six,” Martin said. “I want to see what’s going on – I probably haven’t done as good a job the past few years in my opinion. (My goal is to) really try to figure out why we’re not winning at five and six, which we did not do last year. I’m not gonna let it happen without knowing why.”
On court six, junior Joseph Di Giulio continued his strong early-season play by winning the first singles point over Georgia’s Wagland 6-3, 6-2, and, soon after, senior Karue Sell overcame inconsistency to prevail 7-6(6), 6-2 on court four.
“At 7-6, the balls get really heavy, and the game gets so slow,” Sell said. “Then the ball changes and it becomes a faster game, a faster match. I started hitting bigger and he started missing a lot and losing a bit of confidence with the new balls, and I took advantage of that.”
McDonald’s win clinched the match with UCLA up 4-0, but both coaches decided to play out the remaining matches, given the forecast for rain the next day. Redlicki defeated 40th-ranked Paul Oosterbaan at court three 7-6(3), 7-6(5), while Brymer suffered the sole Bruin loss of the day at court two 6-3, 3-6, 4-6 to 20th-ranked Montgomery. Sophomore Logan Staggs completed the victory by scoring a 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 comeback win over Reinberg on court five.
Due to rain, Sunday’s match against No. 20 Florida was cancelled.