For the Cal men’s tennis team, the Pac-12 Championships finally matter.
This year, the conference overhauled the traditional tournament format for the men’s teams. Rather than have doubles and singles athletes compete individually, the competition is now team-based, with the winner receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships in mid-May. The April 25-28 tournament is also a double-bye format, with the top two seeds receiving automatic bids to the semifinal round.
As a No. 4 seed, Cal (11-10) received a first-round bye and will kick off competition on Thursday at 11 a.m. in Ojai, Calif. For the Bears, the change was lauded and long overdue; the Pac-12 Championships’ format now mirrors that of the NCAA tournament, the team’s magnum opus for each season.
“You’re taking a match that had very little meaning because there was no bearing on the NCAA team tournament,” said Cal coach Peter Wright. “Our players wanted (the new format) for a long time.”
The Bears will begin the tournament against fifth-seed Washington, which swiftly bested Arizona, 4-0, on Wednesday.
Cal already stifled the Huskies (16-7) once this season in a home match at the beginning of April. The Bears’ 7-0 blanking of the Huskies was pure and simple domination. In that match, freshman Gregory Bayane was the only Bear to reach a tiebreak set, both in his singles match on court No. 5 and in his third-court doubles match alongside freshman Andrew Scholnick. Bayane ultimately pulled off wins in both matches.
Past performance — coupled with the fact that the Huskies may already be worn out from Wednesday’s antics — means the Bears aren’t exactly shaking in their boots.
Even if Cal sees a win in the second round as all but guaranteed, the safeguard rapidly vanishes should the Bears advance to the semifinals. There, Cal will face No. 5 UCLA, the top seed in the Pac-12. Yet the Bears still have the sting of a Los Angeles sweep two weeks ago — including a 7-0 beating at the hands of the Bruins — to check their confidence.
In fact, the team skidded to the end of Pac-12 play and right into the conference tournament on a three-match losing streak. All three losses were against top-15 schools.
“Obviously we’ve lost a few matches recently,” Wright said. “It can shake your confidence to lose, but at the end of the day we’re losing to some of the best teams in the country.”
In a roundabout way, the Pac-12 tournament will act in similar fashion, with the Bears once again closing out conference play against the nation’s best.
While Cal remains a solid doubles team – boasting the No. 5 tandem in the country in Konigsfeldt and senior Nick Andrews – its singles performance is erratic. Four players maintained winning records in the Pac-12 yet none by landslide margins; senior captain Andrews, for instance, was only one game above .500.
But for Wright, that simply means his team presents a balanced attack, one in which any athlete can clinch a win for his team.
“Every match someone steps up,” he said. “If it’s a 4-3 win, it just means one guy is doing something special.”