Californians often reference the Midwest as a less-than-ideal place to live. The Cal men’s tennis team, however, seems almost excited for its trip out to Urbana, IL and Ann Arbor, MI, where the Bears will play No. 10 Illinois on Friday and No. 13 Michigan Sunday.
“It’s a great trip for us in general,” said Peter Wright, the director of men’s tennis. “Both teams are outstanding. The goal is to continue that upward climb for these guys.”
Both Illinois and Michigan will put up strong fronts in their home territories. Cal seniors Billy Griffith and J.T. Nishimura will likely face the No. 40 doubles duo of seniors Aleks Vukic and Aron Hiltzik from Illinois in a doubles match that will undoubtedly prove challenging.
Sunday may be even more of an uphill battle as the Bears take on one of the best collegiate singles players in the country — No. 3 senior Alex Knight. Knight and his partner, senior Runhao Hua, also place ninth in the ITA’s doubles rankings for the Wolverines.
“We go after it with who we think is playing best for us (and) they put out whatever they put out,” Wright said. “We don’t even look at guys’ rankings, because to us, they don’t mean a whole lot. It’s more the process of where are you at the end of the season — are we better?”
During the Bears’ home opener weekend, Cal fell to No. 22 Tulane, 4-3, but rebounded the next day for a nail-biting 4-3 win against Oregon. While the loss prevented the Bears from qualifying for the ITA National Indoor Championship, their strong performance against the Ducks and a couple of weeks of practice have the team feeling confident about facing its Big Ten foes.
“I think those two matches are pretty good preparation for our upcoming matches, because Illinois and Michigan are two very good teams as well,” Griffith said. “As far as what we are focusing on, I think everyone played pretty well in the kickoff weekend. We are just … fine-tuning some things, focusing on our intensity (and) making sure our focus is good.”
Wright says he focuses on the holistic improvement of the team and hardly changes the team’s practice regimen based on a win or loss.
“We’re just really a process-oriented team,” Wright said. “Everybody is just trying to get better each time out. There are skills that we all need to improve on in general, but we try to individualize it as much as we can (while) also growing as a team.”
With only two seniors on the young team’s roster, the Midwest trip will be a valuable learning experience not just for the seven freshmen, but for the team as a whole.
Surina Khurana covers men’s tennis. Contact her at [email protected]