After it finally beat Stanford to claim its first Pac-12 championship, the Cal women’s tennis team looked unbeatable. It appeared as if the team had all the necessary tools to win an NCAA title after a 14 dual-match win streak to go undefeated in conference play along with not only beating, but crushing perennial powerhouse, Stanford. If there was going to be a year to win the title, this was it.
But Cal had to learn the hard way that depth — the team’s greatest strength — can only take you so far. Once you get into the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, every team is deep, and unlike Cal, most have a top-ranked player on court one. The Bears proved that they can compete against the best on courts one through five, but against the top teams in the nation, every point becomes more valuable and surrendering the top court point makes it that much harder to take the overall match.
That weakness was never more apparent than when Cal was pitted against Stanford in the round of 16 at the NCAA tournament in some cruel twist of fate. Earlier in the year, the Cardinal beat the Bears at Cal in a nonconference match but Augustus’ squad returned the favor, beating Stanford to take the Pac-12 regular season title. Round three at the NCAA Championships was a back-and-forth battle, but the Bears ultimately fell to Stanford, 4-3.
Augustus attributed the loss to chance, explaining that a couple of points that didn’t go their way, ultimately costing them the match. While courts two through six could have gone either way, the Bears’ absence of a court one player put them at a severe disadvantage at winning the overall match and Stanford exposed this weakness. The Cardinal have No. 3 Kristie Ahn, who handily took her match all three times she played the Bears this season. Denise Starr played her twice in the Pac-12 title match and in the NCAA round of 16, and both times, she lost in two sets. While she is very talented for a freshman, Starr was thrown into the fire by Augustus with mixed results. Starr put up a respectable 6-6 record on court one but was no match against top players on elite teams such as Ahn or Robin Anderson of UCLA.
Before conference play started, Anett Schutting regularly played on court one but put up a subpar 2-5 record. Although most of those matches were against top teams, Augustus quickly realized that her squad lacked the necessary talent to compete against the court one talent in the Pac-12 field. Especially with Zsofi Susanyi, who primarily played on court one last year, struggling at the onset of the spring season, Augustus had little choice but to shake up the lineup.
The Bears’ strategy to recuperate from a lack of a court one player was essentially to trade points with the opposing team. If they were going to lose court one, they might as well put their best player — Anett Schutting — on court two or three so there is a net-zero gain for the other team. Starr posted a 1-2 record on court three, as opposed to Schutting, who posted a 4-1 on court three and 6-0 record on court two.
There’s a reason Stanford has the slight edge in its series against Cal this season. The Bears went undefeated through conference play on the back of their depth and clever coaching. Lynn Chi, Klara Fabikova and Maegan Manasse proved nearly unbeatable on the last three courts where teams usually play their worst players. Here, the three Bears thrived posting a combined 26-1 record opposed to the 16-6 record of Starr, Schutting and Susanyi on the top three courts. There is no way Cal would have beaten UCLA in conference play or Stanford for the Pac-12 title if not for Cal’s incredible play on courts four, five and six.
Cal’s roster for next season looks great once again in terms of depth. But for the Bears to reach that next echelon in collegiate tennis, they need a powerhouse player on court one. Starr has shown flashes of brilliance, but Cal’s best hope for a worthy court one player lies with Susanyi. The Bears may not be ready to hoist the NCAA title next season, but come May next year, expect Cal to have gone much further in the tournament.
Winston Cho covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected]