The umpires stepped on to the court twice in the middle of the dual match to warn the crowd that any harassment against the USC players would warrant a point penalty. That was a mistake. From then on, the cheering from the crowd and from the UCLA players only grew more intense.
The spirited home crowd propelled the No. 6 Bruins (10-2) to a hard-fought 5-2 victory against the No. 12 Trojans (7-3). The nonconference dual match was redemption for UCLA, which hadn’t won against its crosstown rival since 2014. Despite one of the umpires’ warnings briefly disrupting his match, senior Karue Sell rode the crowd’s support to defeat USC’s Jake DeVine 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 to cement an insurmountable 4-2 lead.
“I just wanted to stay close in the beginning because I knew I was eventually gonna find my groove,” Sell said. “Once the crowd got into it at 2-1 (in the third set), (Devine) really struggled to play, and I stayed with him on every single point so he wouldn’t win anything easily.”
Even the final match of the day between junior Gage Brymer and the Trojans’ Logan Smith featured several contentious exchanges over out calls and the umpiring. The intensity was a welcome change from the lackluster performance coach Billy Martin saw against Stanford.
“I was so happy with how we played today,” Martin said. “I was very, very disappointed with the way we came out really tentatively on Saturday, but here I thought from the start in doubles and singles there was a lot of energy and the guys really went out there determined to win.”
Unlike the match against Stanford, the Bruins started off fast, winning the doubles point at courts two and three behind the teams of Sell and junior Joseph Di Giulio and Brymer and freshman Maxime Cressy.
“The message (this week) was to increase first serve percentage and make as many returns as we can,” Cressy said. “The crucial thing is to make the opponent play and make errors. Our focus was to just play simple and do the right things to win the match.”
Di Giulio and Sell also made a strategic change in doubles.
“Yesterday I went to Joe and was like ‘Whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working so let’s switch sides for the return,’” Sell said. “I played deuce side and he played the other side today to give them a different look. We were returning pretty bad before and our game really works when we’re returning well.”
In singles, Di Giulio came off the court in less than an hour with the Bruins’ second point in a 6-1, 6-1 victory at court six. Di Giulio’s strong play on the back courts gives UCLA arguably the toughest to beat top-to-bottom lineup in the entire country.
“Joe followed the game plan really well,” Martin said. “He needs to be aggressive and move his feet, coming into the net when he gets short balls. On the road, he fell back into some really bad habits. Here, at least at home, he really stepped up, and I hope that encourages him to continue to play that type of tennis.”
Junior Mackie McDonald, ranked No. 19 and recently named the Pac-12 Player of the Week for the third time in five weeks, increased UCLA’s lead to 3-0 with a straight-set victory over No. 65 Max de Vroome. Against the big-serving Trojan, McDonald said he focused on his returns, one of the best aspects of his game.
UCLA’s last point came when No. 46 Brymer triumphed 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(8) against No. 56 Smith.
“I’m really happy with where we’re at as far as our record and how we’re playing,” Martin said. “We need to keep working hard and try to improve and get in better condition for conference play and the NCAA Tournament.”