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UCLA men’s tennis 2023 NCAA tournament predictions

UCLA men’s tennis players huddle during the Pac-12 tournament in Ojai, California. (Julia Zhou/Daily Bruin)

By Alexsia Drulias, Jack Nelson, and Jeremy Chen

May 3, 2023 1:42 p.m.

UCLA men’s tennis (12-10, 3-5 Pac-12) will take on Northwestern (20-9, 7-2 Big Ten) Friday at 7 a.m. in Lexington, Kentucky, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Should the Bruins advance, they’ll play the winner of No. 4 seed Kentucky (24-4, 9-3 SEC) and Presbyterian (16-9, 4-1 Big South) at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Take a look at what kind of a run the 2023 men’s tennis beat thinks UCLA can assemble.

Jack Nelson
Assistant Sports editor
Prediction: Second-round exit

When the Bruins’ NCAA tournament draw was announced Monday, I got deja vu.

It was the kind of deja vu only a writer on the 2021 men’s tennis beat could feel.

That’s because there’s one loss I point to which sent the program into two years of uncharacteristic struggle – UCLA versus Northwestern in the first round of the 2021 NCAA championships.

Going into that match, the Bruins had lost No. 1 singles stalwart Keegan Smith to a life-threatening accident and had several major win streaks snapped before the Wildcats twisted the knife even more. After dropping the doubles point and trailing big in three first sets of singles play, Northwestern stormed back to deal UCLA its earliest NCAA tournament exit since 1988.

Now the Bruins will battle the Big Ten’s third-place team firmly as the underdog. Redshirt senior Patrick Zahraj is the lone holdover starter from that 2021 squad, while junior Timothy Li has since made his way into the lineup. The same person who ended UCLA’s 2021 campaign is precisely who Zahraj is set to face – No. 25 Steven Forman.

Northwestern doesn’t bring the pizazz of top singles players or doubles teams into this contest, and neither does UCLA, but the latter has the benefit of recently taking three punches to the stomach. There’s no reason the Bruins can’t play free in this one, and though their underclassmen have yet to instill faith they can deliver in the postseason, I think they’ll come through for an upset.

No. 4 seed Kentucky – the SEC tournament champion, owners of nine top-25 wins and the reigning NCAA runner-up – has a resume that’s too loaded to pick against, and UCLA will be at a severe mismatch when it comes to experience.

The first-round match with Northwestern, though, may very well prove to be another turning point – this time, toward the national preeminence that UCLA possessed not too long ago.

Jeremy Chen
Daily Bruin senior staff
Prediction: First-round exit

UCLA is coming in as the underdog once more, but you won’t catch me barking up the wrong tree again.

Just as my Pac-12 tournament prediction turned sour last Thursday, so did my faith in the young Bruins.

This has been an experimental year with Martin testing his newcomers, and there is still too much inexperience to warrant a deep postseason run.

The Wildcats collected nine wins in their last 10 matchups of the regular season, and their Big Ten championship run was only stopped by the formidable No. 7 Michigan.

The purple and white also boasts top-25 wins over North Carolina State, Duke and Illinois, while the blue and gold have just one – which came in its second match of the season against Pepperdine.

After the team’s inability to bounce back in a revenge match against Utah during the Pac-12 tournament, I just don’t see these freshmen turning the corner and upsetting a better team.

While Northwestern holds two top-100 doubles duos, the No. 49 doubles pairing of Li and sophomore Giacomo Revelli seems to be hitting its stride and could very well lead UCLA to a doubles point victory.

But I can’t trust UCLA’s singles lineup.

Barring any unforeseen changes, this will be the first NCAA tournament for half of the Bruins’ singles players. Although the freshmen proved they can step up in close matches, only Pepperdine comes close to the caliber of play they’ll face against Northwestern.

And with No. 25 Forman leading the way at No. 1 singles for Northwestern, Zahraj will have his hands full from the get-go. The redshirt senior has yet to secure a singles win in his five top-50 matches this season, and, unfortunately, I don’t see any reason to believe he’ll break that trend come Friday.

This was a year of development for UCLA, and a first-round exit will be part of the growing pains.

Alexsia Drulias
Daily Bruin contributor
Prediction: Second-round exit

Toto, we’re not in Los Angeles anymore.

The Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, but the preceding day will be much more important for those who don’t care about horses and do care about the Bruins.

Following its cross-country ride to Lexington, Kentucky, in pursuit of a national title, UCLA will meet Northwestern for only the second time ever.

With the Bruins coming off a first-round loss against Utah last week in the Pac-12 tournament play, the stakes are relatively low, especially when facing a team that lacks historic importance versus the Bruins. The only fact that raises the stakes is that the team’s destiny for the remainder of the season will inevitably be determined. And in that case, the stakes are quite high.

Coach Billy Martin has had a nothing-to-lose mentality when it comes to playing big opponents, specifically during league play, so there’s no reason to not harp on the same plan of action when playing a higher-seeded opponent that doesn’t carry the same rivalry weight that a USC or Utah matchup holds.

For UCLA, this will be the NCAA tournament debut of all three freshmen: Aadarsh Tripathi, Azuma Visaya and Gianluca Ballotta. While I don’t doubt their ability to break through the pressure, coming into unknown territory far away from home turf is quite intimidating.

It will be up to Zahraj, Li and even the top sophomores to keep the intimidation factor to a minimum.

Once they end the Wildcats’ season, the Bruins will most likely play Kentucky, who will hold its home court advantage close to its heart. UCLA might not be able to outride that wave.

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Alexsia Drulias
Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Chen is a Photo editor and a sports contributor on the men's tennis beat. He is a fourth-year cognitive science student pursuing a minor in film, television, and digital media, and he is from Alameda, California. He was previously an assistant Photo editor on the Sports beat.
Chen is a Photo editor and a sports contributor on the men's tennis beat. He is a fourth-year cognitive science student pursuing a minor in film, television, and digital media, and he is from Alameda, California. He was previously an assistant Photo editor on the Sports beat.
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