Thursday had all the makings of a classic underdog story.
With the score sitting at 6-4 in favor of Tennessee, the nation’s top-ranked tandem of Boris Conkic and John Patrick-Smith were two points way from securing the doubles point against Cal in the NCAA round of 16.
But in a dogfight comeback befitting of the final match of the season, the Bears’ No. 23 tandem of junior Nick Andrews and sophomore Christoffer Konigsfeldt managed to break the advantage and tie the score at 8-8.
Then, in the tiebreaker, the Bears rallied to a 7-4 upset victory on the top court and stole the doubles point.
“Not a lot of people thought they’d win,” Cal coach Peter Wright said. “Nick and Chris kept coming, they were aggressive going after each shot. Winning the doubles point gave us a head start. It was the spark that got us going.”
However, that initial spark — and the Bears’ own underdog tale — sputtered out by the singles round. Between a pair of dropped tiebreakers and easy outmaneuvers by the opponents across every court, Cal (14-8) saw its dual season come to an close with a 4-2 defeat at the Taube Family Tennis Center in Stanford, Calif.
Tennessee quickly upended Cal’s momentum by taking the first three singles matches, among them a sixth-court contest in which the Bears’ Bozhidar Katsarov gave up a close first-set tiebreaker before losing the second set, 6-0.
Freshman Ben McLachlan was the only singles player to rack up a team point for Cal. The New Zealand native traded the first two sets with the Vols’ Mateo Fago before prevailing, 6-2, in the third.
However, McLachlan’s fifth-court victory was sandwiched between multiple Tennessee triumphs, and Cal didn’t have the time or the opportunity to attempt another comeback effort. The day’s decision was firmly cemented when third-ranked Rhyne Williams edged out Bears’ sophomore Carlos Cueto, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in the game-clincher on court No. 2.
Cueto and Katsarov’s dropped tiebreakers proved to be the game-changers that day.
“Had we been able to convert one or two of those (tiebreakers), it might have turned out differently,” Wright said of Thursday’s competition. “There were a lot of tough matches. Tennessee is very strong, they’ve played well all year.”
Overall, though, the team doesn’t have any regrets after qualifying for the round of 16 for the first time since 2003.
According to Wright, just making it into the third round represented an accomplishment in and of itself.
“The kind of fight and attitude we displayed is what made us so successful this season,” Wright said. “This match was nothing to be ashamed of. We went after it.”
Annie Gerlach covers men’s tennis.