Ryan Cardiff hasn’t said a word all night.
During the last few hours with his family at his brother’s girlfriend’s house for Thanksgiving, it is getting kind of awkward. Like most families, their dinner is filled with turkey, stuffing and of course mashed potatoes. The entire meal is decadent, with the turkey taking center stage.
But not to be forgotten in the buffet of food options are the yams. And these yams — they are something special. So special, in fact, that they are reason for Ryan to finally open his mouth for the first time.
“This food is yamtastic,” blurts out Ryan.
Yamtastic. The whole table bursts out laughing, shocked by the unexpected “joke” that came from the boy who had kept to himself most of the night.
Upon first glance, Ryan, a freshman on the Cal men’s tennis team, does appear to be on the shy side, but this quiet demeanor is only really on display when first meeting people. What most don’t know is that he’s actually known for his humor, and ridiculous jokes and witty comments are just a few traits that are hidden behind his composed exterior.
You just need to get Ryan comfortable for him to really open up, and there’s no better place to catch him doing that than in the locker room stringing rackets.
Set up near the tennis courts, the clicking sound of the racket stringer plays against the smooth tones of classic ‘70s hits. Over the smooth vocals of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” Ryan can be seen stringing his teammates’ rackets. And with each racket taking up to 30 minutes to string, his brain has a built-in Spotify playlist by the end of the night.
“You get a racket, and if it’s our guys, they cut the strings out, which is really nice even though it doesn’t seem like much,” Ryan says. “You set the tension, and then you do the mains first. The mains are the easy part because you just go up and down, up and down. And then you tie it off, and then you start the crosses, which is the hard part.”
Ryan was already an expert stringer by the time he joined the team. In high school, he and his brother’s racket strings were constantly breaking because of the amount of time they spent on the court, prompting their father to tell them they needed to start stringing their own rackets.
The two soon learned the trade, and it wasn’t long until they started their own business. They began stringing at their local club as well as for their high school team, developing a routine of diligence before even coming to college.
Stringing a racket is much more difficult than most people would expect. It is long and tedious work that Ryan tries to ease by playing music in the background to keep him going. Being tasked with stringing eight rackets at a time, in addition to school and tennis, can be pretty exhausting.
But just like stringing a racket, Ryan has taken his time getting to where he is today. But Ryan’s work ethic isn’t something that was born overnight.
Standing at 5 feet 7 inches and 130 pounds, he is considerably smaller than most tennis players, which leads many to underestimate his ability. Because of this preconceived narrative he’s had to battle throughout his entire tennis career, Ryan has grown used to facing competitors with this sort of mindset.
With tennis being a mental game, it is probably difficult for opponents to not feel overly confident when they see Ryan. His size and reserved demeanor aren’t exactly what you’d call intimidating.
“He looks younger, he’s not the tallest person out there,” says Cal teammate and high school friend Nico Brightbill. “When you get out on the court, you’re like, ‘I’m going to beat this guy.’ And then you start getting in the match, and kids will get very frustrated against him because they think they can beat him and it just doesn’t happen very often.”
The jump in size and aggression from high school to college isn’t something that is easily made up for. It’s one thing to be underestimated in high school, but it’s another to go head-to-head against athletes that have the potential to one day go professional. But being undersized has not stopped Ryan, and in fact, it has only encouraged him to work harder. While it hasn’t been a simple task, Ryan has been able to make up for what he lacks in size.
David Goffin, one of Ryan’s favorite tennis players, shares many similar qualities with him, including being a little smaller than the average tennis player. Like Ryan, soft-spoken Goffin isn’t about the flare or showmanship, but rather prefers to let his tennis speak for itself. And it speaks loudly, as Goffin is currently ranked as the 12th-best tennis player in the world.
“I would say, being reserved, you don’t see how hard he works,” Nico says. “Ryan works harder than anybody I’ve ever met. He’s always up early in the morning, going to the gym, getting his runs in. Whenever he does anything, he does it 110 percent. He doesn’t half-ass it.”
Off the court, he doesn’t half-ass things either. In addition to being a member of the Cal men’s tennis team, Ryan is also a reporter for the CalTV sports department, something that he and Brightbill joined together. Through the organization, they interview fellow athletes and gain experience in sports broadcasting, something that both could be interested in as a possible future career.
In one of his first videos, Ryan interviewed members of the rugby team, coming up with his own questions and coordinating with the cinematographers and editors to fix up the video and post it online. And as a huge sports fan, this club is perfect for him.
“Not a lot of people get to see that in general, but he’s very dedicated to being excellent in the areas he pursues,” says Cal men’s head tennis coach Peter Wright.
So much of what Ryan loves revolves around his passion for sports. It wasn’t until eighth grade that he stopped playing basketball in order to focus more on tennis. Even if it weren’t for that, the fact that he tops out at just over 5 and a half feet would have made the decision for him.
It was in middle school that Ryan began to play tennis every day, developing an undying love for the sport. Ryan’s brother played on the high school team with him and also played college tennis at Cal Poly SLO. The two formed a dynamic doubles duo his brother’s senior year, in which they made it to the finals of the North Coast Sections Tournament, only to lose to Ryan’s current freshman teammate Nic Barretto and his brother.
This was just one of many exhilarating moments in his high school career. And while at the time, those high school matches seemed to be the apex of excitement, college tennis matches have far surpassed them.
“Not a lot of people get to see that in general, but (Ryan’s) very dedicated to being excellent in the areas he pursues.”
In high school, Ryan woke up early every morning to go for runs or lift weights before school with his brother, Dan. And in addition to high school practice, if Dan wasn’t free to hit, Ryan had his mom hand feed him balls on the tennis courts so he could work on his form. And after the many hours of practice, stringing rackets and hoping for his big break, Ryan finally got the chance fall season.
Last semester, Ryan experienced his first-ever college tennis match in an individual tournament at UC Davis. Unsure about whether he would get the opportunity to play, Ryan was given a day’s notice to mentally prepare for what would be the most exciting match of his tennis career up until that point.
His opponent was Pacific senior Kumara Pardha Adavelly, who stood at 6 feet 2 inches, towering over Ryan. Kumara strutted onto the court, growing overconfident by the second as he sized up Ryan. But despite this being Ryan’s first college match, he had been in the underdog position before and wasn’t going to let anyone stifle the excitement of it.
In an emotionally taxing match, Ryan drew upon all of the hours he’d spent practicing before and after school. He heard his teammates Nic and Bjorn cheering for him in the background, and while he made no move to acknowledge their encouragement, it was clear in his play that he was starting to feel good. Ryan went on to win the match in three sets, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.
“I think I won 5 games in a row to go up 5-2, and I was like, ‘This is pretty awesome,’ ” Ryan says. “This is why I like to play. I think it’s fun, having your teammates cheer you on. I don’t think anything really beats that.”
That’s what makes it all worth it to Ryan. As difficult and frustrating as tennis can be, Ryan enjoys every moment on the court. His passion for tennis is apparent when his competitive side and workhorse mentality come to life on the courts. Like most athletes, this approach is something that is ingrained in him, and it’s something that he applies to whatever he puts his mind to.
So while his size may put him at a disadvantage, his work ethic surpasses all. Inspired by the seniors on the team and as just a freshman, Ryan has three more years to continue climbing up the ladder.
“It’s really motivating to see how good they are, in the weight room, how strong they are,” Ryan says. “Even though I might not be as tall as them, it shows that if you put in the work, you can still be really good.”
And while he strings the rackets of Cal’s superstars today, Ryan dreams of one day following in the footsteps of his role models.
Taylor Choe covers men’s tennis. Contact her at [email protected]