Six of the eight NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships’ round of 16 showdowns are rematches of previous dual matches that happened this season.
UCLA is one of the four teams without that luxury.
The No. 5-seeded Bruins (21-5) will take on the No. 12-seeded Texas A&M Aggies (21-6) for only the third time in 11 years Thursday for a spot in the NCAA quarterfinal.
Although the two teams faced each other last year at the ITA Division I National Men’s Team Indoor Championship, neither team can take much away from UCLA’s 4-2 win.
Both squads will feature three completely different doubles teams and only one singles player on the same court as February 2016. With uncertainty on both sides of the net, coach Billy Martin said his team has embraced an underdog role.
“It’ll be new territory for both teams, with different matchups that nobody’s used to,” Martin said. “I think most people certainly feel that with us losing (senior) Gage (Brymer) that Texas A&M is the stronger team and the favorite team to win the match, but we’re hoping we can be competitive and possibly squeak out a win.”
One consequence of Brymer’s absence from the lineup is that every player under him has to play one slot higher than they expected. Against Army and Mississippi over the weekend, UCLA responded by sweeping each team in less than two hours.
UCLA’s top three players – junior Martin Redlicki, freshman Evan Zhu and junior Logan Staggs – combined for five of the six singles wins. The lone point from the bottom three courts, however, came courtesy of freshman Ben Goldberg, who isn’t listed as part of the six-man starting lineup.
At court five, junior Austin Rapp will face Texas A&M freshman Hady Habib, who owns a 3-2 mark at No. 5 singles and an overall 14-3 record in dual-match play.
Rapp said being more experienced could help somewhat when both players are unfamiliar with each other, but the match ultimately comes down to which player executes and adjusts better.
“At the end of the day, it’s been over a year since we’ve played them,” Rapp said. “Being able to have two tournaments behind me and a little bit of the experience helps, but you’re really just trying to play the ball.”
The lone UCLA player who will remain in the same singles slot as February 2016′s contest, senior Joe Di Giulio, lost then to Texas A&M’s Max Lunkin at No. 6 singles.
On Thursday, Di Giulio is slated to take on Aggie sophomore Aleksandre Bakshi, who has a 19-9 overall record but is only 2-2 at No. 6 singles. The senior said he’ll have the previous match on his mind when he takes the court.
“All I remember is that I went out with a bitter taste because I lost my singles match, so I’m definitely hungry to go out there and win,” Di Giulio said. “But having lost my last singles match against them, I’m even more amped up. I don’t want to lose twice in a row to them.”
That fire and energy is what Martin said his team needs to pull out a victory against the Aggies.
“It just depends on what kind of attitude we come out with for the match,” Martin said. “We got to come out and be a really scrappy, hard-fighting team. If we work really hard and play well, we’ve got a chance. If not – if we’re intimidated, we’re tentative, we’ll probably lose the match.”