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UCLA men’s tennis prepares for 3rd matchup of season against USC

Senior Bryce Pereira and his doubles partner senior Keegan Smith have won three consecutive doubles matches but will face off against the No. 5 doubles team in the nation on Saturday when No. 33 UCLA men’s tennis takes on No. 15 USC. (Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin)

men's tennis

No. 15 USC
Saturday, 4 p.m.

Marks Stadium
No TV info
No. 31 Pepperdine
Wednesday, 2 p.m.

Los Angeles Tennis Center
UCLA Live Stream

By Jack Nelson

April 16, 2021 9:48 p.m.

The final installment in a trilogy between crosstown rivals will give the Bruins an opportunity to renew the old adage, “third time’s the charm.”

No. 33 UCLA men’s tennis (11-4, 4-2 Pac-12) will visit No. 15 USC (16-6, 4-2) on Saturday, its final conference matchup prior to the Pac-12 tournament. It will then close out the regular season Wednesday by hosting No. 31 Pepperdine (12-5, 5-0 West Coast Conference). The Bruins have yet to vanquish the Trojans this season, but have not posted a winless campaign against their Los Angeles adversaries since 2014-2015.

The previous chapter of the rivalry had historic implications as the Trojans dealt the Bruins a 4-3 loss, bringing an end to a 68-match home winning streak that spanned nearly six years. The fate of the match fell into the hands of junior Patrick Zahraj, but he was unable to get the job done, dropping a 7-5, 5-7, 3-6 decision to Jake Sands. Zahraj was fresh off a COVID-19-induced quarantine going into that match, and has yet to start since because of a combination of injury concerns and coaching decisions.

Coach Billy Martin provided an update on Zahraj’s availability and said although he’s ready to go, there’s no guarantee he will return this Saturday.

“He’s got the green light for me to decide whether to play him or not – it’ll probably be a little bit of a game-time decision, but he’s available to play for sure,” Martin said.

Although USC holds the head-to-head advantage on the season, UCLA has had a similar trajectory since the previous bout on Feb. 28, as both teams have trended downwards in the rankings. The Bruins dropped from No. 17 on Feb. 24 to No. 33 on April 14, and the Trojans fell from No. 9 to No. 15 in that same period. Additionally, both teams are coming off 4-3 losses at No. 24 Stanford and are tied for third place in the conference standings.

Considering tournament play is on the horizon, sophomore Drew Baird said the Bruins are putting extra stock into this edition of the crosstown rivalry.

“We’re looking at the postseason, we’re trying to build some momentum going into the Pac-12 tournament and NCAAs,” Baird said. “This is a good match for us to start getting momentum and gaining confidence that we need to take it into the postseason.”

UCLA has seen turnover in its starting lineup since Feb. 28, and Martin said it’s likely that all three doubles pairings on Saturday will differ from those who took the court last time out against USC.

Should the Bruins maintain their doubles lineup from their previous six contests, they will feature the senior duo of Bryce Pereira and Keegan Smith at court one, junior Govind Nanda and Baird at court two and juniors Roscoe Bellamy and Mathew Tsolakyan at court three. Martin previously said inserting Zahraj is the only change he would consider, barring any unexpected availability issues.

Pereira and Smith are winners of three consecutive doubles matches coming into the match against USC and have accumulated a 6-2 record together on the season. The reason behind their consistent success as of late is chemistry, according to Pereira.

“Keegan and I have known each other since we were probably 8 or 9 years old,” Pereira said. “We played in a couple junior matches together, we were always super close (and) we even trained together down at Carson growing up. Now it’s four years in a row that we’ve roomed together, so I think chemistry in doubles is everything for us.”

The two seniors will face off against Daniel Cukierman and Riley Smith, another pair of seniors who compose the No. 5 doubles team in the nation. Despite the two Trojans boasting a 15-2 record to boot, Pereira said neither he nor his partner lack the confidence that they can help their team claim the doubles point on Saturday.

“Keegan and I are pretty confident that we can hang with any team in the country,” Pereira said. “We don’t pay attention to the rankings or anything, we just focus on our own game and try to impose our game on theirs.”

With 38 years of experience under his belt, Martin has seen his fair share of crosstown rivalry matches, and he said that payback could be brewing.

“I’ve always said that if I have to get my guys up to play a USC match, something’s wrong,” Martin said. “I think USC has that (momentum) after beating us the first couple times, but hopefully, payback could be a motivator for us.”

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Jack Nelson | Sports contributor
Nelson is currently a Sports contributor on the men's tennis beat.
Nelson is currently a Sports contributor on the men's tennis beat.
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