Playing tennis for a living is a privilege reserved for the very best. To be the best, however, one must beat the best.
The No. 14 Cal men’s tennis team will have a chance to prove its worth this weekend at the BNP Paribas Open Collegiate Challenge in Indian Wells, California. With the BNP Paribas Open — featuring top pros — in its final weekend, the Bears will get a glimpse into the lives of top professionals such as Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, just to name a few.
“We’re basically the appetizer for players like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal,” said Cal head coach Peter Wright. “So it’s a tremendous opportunity to showcase college tennis and for our guys to play in front of tennis enthusiasts from all around the world. It’s also very inspirational to get to see the very best in the world practicing their craft.”
With matchups against No. 15 Oklahoma and No. 21 Baylor, Cal will have a tough, competitive weekend of tennis. But that’s just how the Bears like it.
“It’s what you’re practicing for, all your life,” said senior Oskar Wikberg. “Just competing week in and week out with these guys is so much fun.”
Cal will take on Baylor first Saturday. Baylor breezed by Prairie View A&M its last time out, sweeping a triple header at home by scores of, 7-0, 6-1 and 4-0. Baylor’s No. 56 Max Tchoutakian, Jimmy Bendeck and Felipe Rios all extended their winning streaks in singles play, to 6, 5 and 5, respectively.
Another player on Baylor to look out for is No. 17 Julian Lenz. As its highest-ranked player, Lenz has been instrumental in dual action play, as he and Will Little comprise the No. 12 doubles team. Also worth mentioning is that Baylor’s longtime head coach Matt Knoll was named USPTA Texas College Coach of the Year on Monday.
On Sunday, Cal will face Oklahoma. The Sooners will look to rebound after having lost three of their last four overall. In its previous match, Oklahoma lost to then-No.4 (and now No. 1) Virginia, 4-3, in Tulsa.
Despite their short term struggles, the Sooners, who are seeking an unprecedented fifth consecutive Big 12 title, remain a well-balanced and dangerous team. Oklahoma’s doubles teams comprise of the ranked pairs of No. 24 Axel Alvarez Llamas and Spencer Papa, as well as No. 46 Alex Ghilea and Andrew Harris, while in singles, they tout three ranked players in No. 41 Llamas, No. 92 Maxime Mora and No. 99 Ghilea.
At the head of Oklahoma’s successful collegiate tennis dynasty? None other than head coach John Roddick — the older brother of former world No. 1 Andy Roddick.
“They are two of the top teams in the country. Really, the Oklahoma team is one of the strongest teams out there. Baylor is consistently strong as well. Two great coaches. The competition level is incredibly high, and that’s what we like,” Wright said.
Cal appears well-equipped to face up to the level of competition. The Bears have four nationally ranked players of their own in No. 10 Andre Goransson, No. 37 Florian Lakat, No. 31 Billy Griffith and No. 52 Oskar Wikberg. Wright himself is no slouch either. Over the summer, he was inducted into the USTA Northern California Hall of Fame.
The players may find it hard, however, to stay focused while they play in the same environment as the pros.
“Nadal would be my favorite in this tournament,” Wikberg said. “He never gives up. He’s had to battle with a lot of adversity in his career, but he just keeps going strong.”
Wright will have the task of keeping his players free of distractions. Still, even a 52 year-old head coach may find himself star-struck.
“Last year we had lunch, Roger Federer was two tables over from us,” Wright marveled.
Certainly not a bad way to spend your weekend.