The form of a sports event has a substantial impact on its substance. In collegiate tennis, six singles matches are played simultaneously, creating parallel narratives and adding a team element to a fiercely individual sport.
The score of Cal’s 5-2 win Saturday over Pepperdine belies the fragility of the match. The home crowd watched Cal dominate the doubles point and Zsofi Susanyi coast to victory on the main court; the Waves were down 2-0 quickly. The dynamic of the match changed when, within minutes, three Bears lost tiebreakers to drop the first set; Pepperdine soon cut the lead to 3-2.
“You want to finish it on your racket and not wait for one of your teammates to do it,” said coach Amanda Augustus. “I think the ones that are a little less experienced try and look at the scoreboard.”
Cal now needed just one comeback win to finish off the Waves.
Perhaps the best chance at a home victory was seen on court two. Junior Tayler Davis had lost what she called a “heartbreaking” match the day before to No. 7 Mallory Burdette of Stanford and was heavily favored against Khunpak Issara, an unranked Pepperdine senior. Issara had come back in the first set after losing the first four games, although unforced errors had let Davis back in the second set.
Adjacent to Davis was Cal sophomore Anett Schutting, a soft-spoken Estonian import who had already notched a marquee win the previous day. Schutting was locked in a duel against Lorraine Guillermo, a heralded freshman from the San Gabriel Valley. Although Schutting lost the first set, she had just won five consecutive games to force a tie.
As both third sets began, Pepperdine rallied. Davis looked exhausted, quickly going down 2-1. Moments later, Guillermo took a 3-1 lead over Schutting.
With Issara one point away from taking a two-game lead, Davis rifled a backhand down the line past the senior from Bangkok, forcing a deuce, and two points later tied the match. Davis’ run was just beginning, as she took a 4-2 lead and tried to encourage Schutting, who was down to match point.
The crowd, focused on court three where Schutting was on the brink of elimination, missed the fact that Davis began to stumble. In the crucial seventh game, Davis double faulted three times, allowing Issara back in the match. Unforced errors saw Davis fall behind 5-4, and Issara had five chances to secure the match.
Schutting sensed that the team was slipping and responded. After taking a 6-5 lead, the reserved sophomore let out a full-body scream that underscored the drama of the match.
“Mentally, she knew she was not going to give up, no matter what,” Augustus said.
Davis, too, was not done. The deciding point may have not been a point at all; the official overruled Issara after she called a serve out with the score 5-5. Davis had the lead for the rest of the way, finishing out a 7-5 win to give Cal the victory.
Engaged in a match tiebreaker, Schutting watched Davis finish off the Waves, but still pulled out a victory, capping it with a crosscourt forehand winner.
Although confusing, the parallel narratives seemed to embody the teamwork that is present in team tennis.
The standard image of a tennis star may be the sports equivalent of a violin virtuoso, but collegiate tennis, in this Saturday’s case, evokes a full philharmonic.