Defining moments of the 2023 regular season for UCLA men’s tennis
Patrick Zahraj of UCLA men’s tennis leads a prematch chant. Though the redshirt senior won two of his final seven completed dual-singles matches, both came in the Bruins’ final three contests of the regular season. (Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)
After tumultuous months of matches featuring a historic losing streak, a crucial injury and missed opportunities, No. 6 seed UCLA men’s tennis (12-9, 3-5 Pac-12) opens the postseason against No. 3 seed Utah (21-4, 6-2) in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Championships on Thursday at 6 p.m. Ahead of the trip to Ojai, California, the 2023 men’s tennis beat – which has followed the Bruins every step of the way – makes its picks for the defining moments of the regular season.
Bereft of the Belgian
It all went downhill when Hoogy didn’t report for duty.
After its season-opening wins over Hawai’i and then-No. 19 Pepperdine, UCLA entered the national rankings and offered a glimpse at the potential the team held.
Sure, it went on to get swept by USC, but UCLA had a convincing case that it could remain competitive – a talented crop of freshmen, a seasoned captain in redshirt senior Patrick Zahraj, and most importantly, No. 88 sophomore Alexander Hoogmartens at the helm of its singles lineup.
Hoogmartens started the season at No. 83 in the country, but quickly shot up after slaying top-50 opponent after top-50 opponent. He admitted to being surprised by his hot start, and he seemed poised for a breakout second year. By Feb. 8, he was ranked No. 15 in the nation.
But four days prior proved to be his last singles match of the regular season.
With Hoogmartens out because of an undisclosed injury, the Bruins had to shift gears, introducing freshman Gianluca Ballotta as a staple in the singles lineup and promoting Zahraj to the No. 1 spot.
Ballotta and freshman Aadarsh Tripathi went on to play all 16 singles matches after Feb. 4, with Azuma Visaya tallying 14.
Hoogmartens made a one-time comeback in a doubles win against Pennsylvania on Mar. 8, but he did not rejoin the singles lineup. His injury – along with its severity – remains a mystery.
As a result, everyone had to play up a spot, and coach Billy Martin had to shake up the doubles pairings – or as he put it, “throw the kitchen sink” at opposing teams.
The young lineup yielded flashes of greatness, as well as moments of despair. While Hoogmartens is only a sophomore, his on-court presence would have been invaluable to the inexperienced freshmen.
The Bruins still have time to blossom, but a healthy Hoogmartens remains the biggest “what-if” of the season.
Secret of the Sweeps
Daily Bruin contributor
Three of the three times UCLA squared up against USC this season, the former failed to score a point.
Even though all three matchups reflect ultimate execution and superior experience from the Trojans, there is more to be uncovered when taking a closer look at the Bruins’ unfinished singles matches.
College tennis has a unique pressure of which team can clutch two doubles matches first, then the necessary remainder of singles points to reach a total of four faster than the other team. Of course, if an opponent is moving towards a win on every court, then timing is less important because the story would have the same ending.
This has not been the case in any of the crosstown showdowns from this season.
On Jan. 29, Zahraj was only a single game away from clutching a point for the Bruins while Visaya simultaneously fought back to bring about a third set. Two matches would not have equaled a win for the Bruins, but it would have placed them on the board.
Similarly, in the second matchup, Tripathi was a mere two games away from walking off with a win, while his fellow freshman Ballotta was battling in a third set on court four.
Even the third edition showcased a similar trend, with Ballotta seeing his victory on the horizon, and Li peeking into a third set.
The losses themselves probably take more of a toll on the team than the near-wins, but ignoring the unfinished business would be a large oversimplification for a young team in search of growth.
Collapse at the Close
Assistant Sports editor
In the finale of a largely forgettable regular season, the Bruins stood at the precipice of proclamation.
Zahraj and Ballotta turned in a pair of season-best singles efforts to knot sixth-place UCLA at three points apiece with first-place No. 19 Utah. The match came down to the third set on court three, where Tripathi broke No. 97 Francisco Bastias to go on serve up 5-4.
Known for his energized on-court presence, Tripathi almost left the ground entirely as he threw a victorious punch across his body, throwing his arms up to galvanize the Los Angeles Tennis Center’s largest crowd of the season.
Controlling the pace with forehand after blistering forehand, Tripathi ran Bastias from alley to alley, baseline to net, and virtually everywhere in between. And just like that, the Bruin possessed a 40-0 lead, a colossal clinching opportunity – on his team’s Senior Day, nonetheless.
What happened next was inexplicable.
As if revived by some otherworldly force, Bastias won the next point, then the next. The Ute proceeded to take eight straight points against Tripathi who, for the first four, served for the match.
The audience didn’t have to be in his head to know that the freshman was rattled as he went back on serve at 5-6. Tripathi opted for safer shots and missed his spots – a far cry from the zone he was in just two games prior. He broke Bastias’ streak, but his momentum had dissipated. His shouts had turned to silence.
Bastias completed the comeback, and his teammates dashed towards him to celebrate their program’s maiden Pac-12 regular-season title. UCLA was left to grapple with what could’ve, and should’ve, been.
A devastating end for the Bruins, but a fitting microcosm of the inexperienced talent they’ve been forced to rely on.