Cal men’s tennis’ seniors finish careers in NCAA individual tournaments

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Debbie Yuen/File

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A path allows its travelers to experience places they have never been before — the rigorous yet rewarding path that is collegiate tennis proved no different for the two Cal men’s tennis seniors in the NCAA Individual Tournament.

Billy Griffith and J.T. Nishimura officially concluded the Bears’ season and their collegiate careers as the two competed in the championship tournaments. No. 54 Griffith played in the singles tournament before joining partner Nishimura in the doubles tournament, where the duo was ranked No. 33.

Griffith began his run in the singles championship with an upset to remember, toppling the No. 8 seed and eighth-ranked Kentucky junior Ryotaro Matsumura, 6-4, 6-3.

“He played aggressive tennis; his points were relatively short — which is what he needed to do in the heat — and he dominated the match,” said Peter Wright, director of Cal men’s tennis. “It was one of the top matches he’s played this year, both from a strategy standpoint and just how well he dominated the match with his forehand.”

Griffith’s win advanced him to the round of 32 on Thursday, where he played No. 18 Jose Salazar, Arkansas’ star senior.

Although Griffith dropped the first set, 6-1, he did not go down without a fight. Trying to catch up to his opponent, the senior left his best on the court, falling with a score of just 7-5.

“He did a good job of getting himself back in the match, but the style of the Arkansas player was tough for Billy because he was counterpunching pretty well,” Wright said. “Billy was aggressive, and the guy from Arkansas kept getting balls back in more of a defensive play, and that was the difference in the match.”

While Griffith’s loss to Salazar knocked him out of the singles bracket, there was still more tennis to be played.

Just a few hours later, Griffith took the court with Nishimura for what would be the last time, as the pair warmed up to play the No. 2 doubles team in the nation — North Carolina’s sophomore William Blumberg and senior Robert Kelly.

Despite the difference in rankings on paper, the Bears had to enter the match with clear minds and confidence in their combined abilities. They also had some expectations for how Blumberg and Kelly would play, having had previous experience against the team.

Although the Cal duo eventually fell, 6-4, 6-4, the showdown was hard-fought by all means.

“They really had a lot of opportunities in the match — they lost a few deuce points, which is just how the luck of the match went,” Wright said. “But I think overall they played a much, much better match than they did last time against that North Carolina team.”

The loss was not a dead end, but rather the seniors’ veering off on a different fork in the road. Cal tennis is now behind Griffith and Nishimura, but their impact as captains on the young players will still remain in seasons ahead.

“I couldn’t be more proud that they finished their careers really at the pinnacle of college tennis, which is the NCAA championships,” Wright said. “The other thing I’m so proud of is how well they’ve represented the school, the team, their families and themselves.”

Surina Khurana covers beach volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].