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Falling to Northwestern, UCLA men’s tennis leaves NCAA tournament winless

Timothy Li walks back to the baseline between points. The junior for UCLA men’s tennis lost both his doubles and singles matches on Friday, the latter of which cost his team their season. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Men's Tennis


UCLA2
Northwestern4

By Jack Nelson

May 6, 2023 2:24 p.m.

This post was updated May 7 at 9:49 p.m.

Contrary to what the headline suggests, the Bruins should be the ones advancing.

Just ask their man in charge.

“We were really in position to win that match – no doubt about it – and should’ve won that match,” said coach Billy Martin.

But what should happen isn’t always what actually occurs. What “should’ve happened” didn’t Friday, as UCLA men’s tennis (12-11, 3-5 Pac-12) dropped its first-round matchup of the NCAA tournament in a 4-2 decision to Northwestern (21-9, 7-2 Big Ten).

Two seasons ago, the Bruins made their earliest postseason exit since 1988, and just last year, missed the tournament entirely for the first time ever.

Now winless in the NCAA tournament once again, the three seasons stand alone as the worst stretch in program history.

Pitted against the same foe that ended their campaign in the same round on the same stage back in 2021, the Bruins were well in position to avoid the same fate.

Freshman Azuma Visaya rose off the mat to steal his first set of singles play, earning a 7-6(4) win after going down 3-0. Two courts below him, junior Timothy Li possessed a 4-1 lead in his third frame after winning the first 6-3, but crumbling 0-6 in the second.

All Li needed was two more games to tie the match at three points apiece and send it to Visaya – who gained a 3-1 lead in his second set – for the decider.

Li got neither of them.

Instead, Northwestern’s Gleb Blekher strung together five consecutive games – complete with a pair of breaks – to ensure that history would repeat itself. The Wildcats, as if stunned that they really had executed the turnaround, hesitated to mob Blekher after match point until he beckoned them to the court.

“Tennis is a funny sport, and you just don’t know,” Martin said. “When it gets towards the end, closing out matches is a test of character. And unfortunately Timo had a little bit of a hiccup there.”

(Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)
UCLA men’s tennis looks on during a match. For the first time in program history, the Bruins have now completed three straight seasons without a win at the NCAA tournament. (Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)

 

There was hope for the Bruins in this one, but as the first hour transpired, hope was scarce.

Freshman Gianluca Ballotta and redshirt senior Patrick Zahraj endured multiple early breaks in doubles play, going down 4-1 before eventually falling 6-2 to Blekher and Ivan Yatsuk.

The No. 56 pair of Li and sophomore Giacomo Revelli, hot off consecutive ranked wins, couldn’t get on the board until the fifth game of their contest with No. 54 Simen Bratholm and Steven Forman, losing by an identical margin as their court two counterparts.

“They were quite flat. They just came out without much emotion,” Martin said.

From there, the Bruins grabbed four first sets of singles play en route to the hypothetical four points needed to move on to round two. Revelli was the first to secure a second set with his 6-3, 6-3 defeat of No. 66 Yatsuk, and Ballotta followed suit with a 6-3, 6-1 victory to push UCLA to a 2-1 lead.

Ballotta, one of only three Bruins to finish the season with nine or more dual-singles wins, said there’s value to be found in the fight the young team showed.

“The future is bright for us – and particularly for us freshmen. We are all very, very good with our different game styles,” Ballotta said. “We’re going to be very important for the team, now and in the future too.”

Zahraj and freshman Aadarsh Tripathi would then drop their respective singles matches in straight sets, and the court six crisis told the rest of the story.

According to Revelli, the four straight losses that closed the Bruins’ season may very well have turned out differently.

“A lot of these matches really came down to the wire, whether it’s a 4-2 or a 4-3,” Revelli said. “It’s really a matter of points – not even games – just a matter of points.”

Theoreticals aside, there’s no question in Martin’s mind about the reality of Friday’s match.

“There’s no excuses,” Martin said. “We let them take it away from us, and that’s sad.”

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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.
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