Talented and skilled but equally young and inexperienced, the Cal women’s tennis team has entered the heart of its conference schedule with its fair share of question marks. Losers of three consecutive dual matches, the Bears are hopeful that a pair of reunions this weekend with familiar conference opponents, USC and No. 13 UCLA, can ignite some sort of fire.
Cal’s recent skid and modest 4-4 record is far from a perfect telling of its potential in the postseason because the team has competed without senior All-American Karla Popovic, arguably its best and most experienced player.
The extended absence of a leader from a team, regardless of the context, is almost always an automatic setback. Recent examples in the world of sports include MVP Mike Trout’s stint on the disabled list with the Los Angeles Angels last summer and the San Antonio Spurs fighting for playoff position without All-Star and unspoken leader Kawhi Leonard.
Although the Angels and Spurs were still solid teams while playing without their stars, it’s no secret that teams that compete with their top player sidelined are a shell of their identity when playing with them.
This year’s squad is no exception to this phenomenon, and while it’s had the chance to develop its freshman core, the lengthy absence of Popovic is finally catching up to the team.
After playing just three matches in a brief fall campaign, Popovic hasn’t seen the court since the spring season began in January for undisclosed reasons. Entering the fall as the No. 5-ranked singles player in the nation, after earning All-Pac-12 First Team honors last spring, Popovic was set to remain in the spotlight of No. 1 courts all season long.
While she’s not the only senior that has played sparingly this school year — fifth-year Stephane Lin and senior Audrey Mayer haven’t played in recent weeks as well — Popovic in particular leaves a gaping hole in Cal’s lineup.
Meanwhile, the Trojans and Bruins come to Berkeley with plenty of swagger, and for good reason too. USC is riding a five-match winning streak, with one of those wins coming in a tight 4-3 victory over Cal in Los Angeles just a couple of weeks ago.
After a rough start in doubles, Cal rebounded nicely in singles before Trojan junior Rianna Valdes defeated freshman Julia Rosenqvist to seal the win for USC. Rosenqvist, along with fellow freshmen Anna Bright and Jasie Dunk, have shined lately in their inaugural spring season.
A day after Cal’s loss to USC, the team fell once again, this time in the Westwood neighborhood. Another slow start from the Bears allowed the Bruins to race out to an early advantage — an occurrence that Cal head coach Amanda Augustus is undoubtedly hoping to avoid during round two.
But as much of a challenge that the Trojans pose for the Bears, the Bruins are on an even higher level. Currently ranked No. 8 in the nation, sophomore Ena Shibahara leads a quartet of UCLA players in the top 100, a group that also features freshman sensation Abi Altick. Upsetting the Bruins would likely involve a little bit of luck, but if the Bears can flip the script and earn the doubles point right off the bat, they’ll give themselves a solid chance.