In a conference with four traditional powerhouse teams, Arizona State is the fifth team in the Pac-12, on the outside looking in.
Women’s tennis on the west coast is dominated by Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA, teams that are consistently ranked among the top in the country. The Sun Devils (15-3, 5-2 in the Pac-12) are usually in the top 25, but each year, they are unable to crack the top four.
A win for No. 21 Arizona State on Friday over the No. 11 Bears would finally place them among those elite teams.
Meanwhile, the match will give Cal (12-5, 6-1) a chance to climb back into the top-10 teams in the country — the place at which it started the season.
After taking on the Sun Devils in the desert on Friday at 1:30 p.m., the Bears will then take on Arizona (9-11, 1-6) on Saturday at noon.
While the Wildcats shouldn’t be too much trouble, the Sun Devils will prove a challenge for Cal.
Arizona State plays an aggressive style of tennis, especially in doubles. By playing close to the net, its players can force quick points that can surprise a team. The Sun Devils also limit their opponent’s options by keeping them toward the center of the court.
“They’re usually very good in doubles,” said Cal coach Amanda Augustus. “They’re always very well-coached, and they make adjustments, especially during the match.”
The aggressive doubles play from Arizona State will prove to be most of the challenge the Bears will face. Last weekend, Cal’s top doubles duo of Anett Schutting and Lynn Chi was uncharacteristically pushed to the brink against an unranked Oregon duo.
The Bears will find out whether last week’s struggles are a pattern or an aberration when Chui and Schutting play Arizona State’s top pair of Jacqueline Cako and Nicole Smith, who hold a 12-3 record on the season.
On the No. 2 doubles court, Cal will also face a challenge. Klara Fabikova has been playing on that court in doubles all year, but her usual partner — Zsofi Susanyi — has been in and out of the lineup with a hip flexor injury.
Susanyi was able to return to doubles last weekend with Fabikova in an 8-1 win but was pulled from singles. Augustus is optimistic that the duo can be back on the court once again on Friday.
“Zsofi’s had a great week, so I think she’s super excited to get back out there,” said Augustus. “They need matches together, and I think, hopefully, they’ll gel.”
The good news for Cal is that the Bears are very familiar with the Sun Devils. In the fall, Arizona State sends many of its players north to compete in Cal’s fall tournament, and later in the semester, the Bears return the favor and send many of their players to Arizona. As a result, players on both squads are familiar with the opposing play style.
And as luck would have it, Cal will be more familiar than usual with the hot, dry weather that they will face in Arizona as well.
“It was ironic because we kinda had a windy, hot week here in Berkeley,” said Augustus, “but that’s good preparation for the conditions that we’ll face in the desert.”
Riley McAtee covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].