As the Cal men’s tennis teams opens the 2016-17 season in the Napa Valley Classic this weekend, the Bears will be hoping that last year’s Final Four squad can age as well as the wine being made all around them. After a stunning run to the semifinals last season, and after returning almost the entirety of their core, the Bears are looking to solidify their place as a title contender.
Sending four players to enter a singles tournament, with an additional informal doubles portion, the Bears will try to show they belong among the nation’s best. With a pack of fellow contenders sending players as well, Cal cannot afford to stumble out of the gate and lower its expectations.
If you only followed collegiate football and basketball, you’d think season openers were just for stretching against inferior opponents. That is far from the case for the Bears, who will have to bring their all against players from tennis powerhouses like North Carolina and USC. The Tar Heels finished last season ranked as the third best program in the nation, and although USC stumbled to an uncharacteristic 11th place ranking at the end of last year, it’s won the national title in five of the past eight years.
Also sending players are Texas (who finished 18th last year), Tulsa (who upset the Bears in their first dual match of the year last season), Baylor and the USTA Junior National Team (whom Cal defeated in an informal exhibition Wednesday).
“The matches we play, they’re all about the tougher they are the better they are, whether you win or lose them,” said Cal head coach Peter Wright. “One of the goals we talked about is, we’re not trying to win the fall. We’re trying to have ourselves in a position to do well in the spring, and by playing tough matches in the fall, it lets us reflect on those results and the process of how we played, and improve on that process. We want to play the best competition we can and learn from that.”
Cal will be sending its top four single players this year, which is an improvement after not being able to send senior Filip Bergevi last year. North Carolina and USC are new additions to the tournament, while fellow legacy program Florida will not be returning to the wine country.
Last year’s finals pitted Bear against Bear as junior Billy Griffith defeated senior Florian Lakat 10-6 to nab a wild-card entry into a USTA pro-circuit tournament. The prospects of an intra-team final this year are greatly diminished with USC equaling Cal’s four single players ranked in the top 100, and with Texas and North Carolina adding three a piece.
“It’s going to be tough (to repeat as the champion),” Griffith said. “I had a great tournament last year and it was a lot of fun. Obviously, those are two good programs (added to the tournament) and there are going to be a lot of good players in Napa.”
Andrew Wild covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected]