The biggest comeback so far this season for the UCLA men’s tennis team didn’t start on a court.
In fact, it started last year. Only a month into the 2015 spring season, junior Gage Brymer broke his hand, after spending a couple weeks away from the team for personal reasons.
“We think it was a stress fracture just from being out and playing (too much),” Brymer said. “I took a little bit of time off at the beginning of the year, and I was trying to come back for the season and get into it fast. I just think I came back a little too fast.”
At the time, Brymer was attempting to build off an extremely successful freshman campaign – a year that not only saw him tie the team lead in dual match victories with 18, but also rise as high as No. 26 in the ITA Men’s Tennis Singles Rankings and eventually finish ranked No. 69.
Unable to join his teammates on the court, Brymer instead was focusing on rehabbing, a process he called tedious.
“You know, (it was) just little hand exercises and icing, stuff like that,” Brymer said. “It’s just kinda time consuming but it’s not too bad. I’d obviously rather be on the court playing a lot of tennis.”
Brymer’s injury led to a truncated sophomore year, where he finished 10-8 in singles matches. His absence negatively impacted the team, as UCLA finished the year ranked No. 15, its lowest end-of-the-year ranking since the ITA started keeping records in 1981.
During the offseason, Brymer dedicated himself to focusing on the mental aspect of tennis.
“I really got into the mental side of the game,” Brymer said. “All the players are really good physically, and I think the mental side is something that can take players to the next level.”
Once his hand healed, Brymer had to rebuild his game from the ground up, starting with fundamentals. Training took a different meaning for a player fighting to regain his dominant form and shape from a year ago.
“Because I had taken the time off, I’ve had to work on everything to get back into the groove of things, then get back into point-playing and then to tournament and match play,” Brymer said. “Just the process of coming back I think was the main thing I was focused on in training.”
All of Brymer’s hard work paid off when he cruised through the Costa Mesa Open Classic in December, winning all six of his matches and the finals in straight sets. It was a return to his freshman-year form, and a welcome sight at UCLA. Brymer continued his dominant streak at the Sherwood Collegiate Cup this January, making it to the finals before losing to Julian Lenz of Baylor, who finished last year as the No. 4 ranked collegiate singles player in the nation. Coach Billy Martin said he wasn’t surprised about Brymer’s success following the hand injury.
“If Gage wants something, I think he’s a pretty determined kid and will work hard enough to get himself in a position to do good things,” Martin said. “We know how good of a player he is – he was that way his freshman year and in juniors. If he wants to play well and he’s healthy enough, we’ll see good results.”
The impressive showing at Sherwood earned Brymer the No. 2 singles slot in the starting lineup to begin this year, although he will slide down to No. 3 when junior Mackenzie McDonald returns from injury.
Having a healthy Brymer back provides both depth and leadership to the team. Including him, the top three singles players could each be ranked within the top-50 in the nation, and the bottom three slots are occupied by experienced and solid veterans.
“(Brymer) looks really sharp now, he looks really hungry to play, and (he’s) also doing a good job in doubles,” Martin said. “It’s gonna be really crucial to our team that Gage is playing well if we want to have a chance to be competitive with the top teams.”
So far, Brymer has shown that he can succeed in the No. 2 spot. In each of UCLA’s three dual matches this season, Brymer has won in straight sets which reminds Martin of an identical scenario from the previous year.
“I think it’s a very similar situation to Dennis Mkrtchian last year,” Martin said. “Dennis had been injured the second half of the year before – his junior year – and we really didn’t know how Dennis was going to be that year, but he really stepped up and did a great job for us at number two singles.”
Brymer’s success and tenacity culminated in his being named as one of the team’s co-captains alongside McDonald. Maxime Cressy, one of two freshmen on the team, said Brymer has been a huge positive influence on the Bruins.
“I think he’s a great person – a really hard worker,” Cressy said. “He’s been a really good example for the whole team. I think he has had a huge impact on the team, and it’s proven with his results that he’s been working really hard this fall. I think he’s a great leader, a great captain for this team.”
With Brymer’s hand now completely healed, his journey from the trainer’s room to the tennis court has run its course. He’s returning mentally stronger and is aiming to make up for lost time.