If you were told that you would be playing tennis against some of the top talent in the country, you would probably freak out. Now, if you were told that your doubles partner would be someone you had never played with before, you would probably consider forfeiting the match.
Junior Ben Draper and senior Bjorn Hoffmann didn’t seem to freak out or consider forfeiting the match. Instead, they stole the spotlight and never looked back.
“In those bigger moments, when the pressure is on the aim is just to do what you do every day in practice and just try and treat it point-by-point, and not think about the situation or what’s on the line,” Draper said.
Peter Wright, director of Cal men’s tennis, opted to pair Draper and Hoffmann amid a slew of new doubles pairs being rolled out this past weekend at the ITA Northwest Regional Championships at Stanford.
“We talk about being a good doubles partner as opposed to being a good doubles player, so we want guys who can play with anybody in any combination, and I think our guys are really improving their skill sets to be able to complement each other regardless of who their partner is,” Wright said.
It seems that Wright may have struck gold with the combination of Draper and Hoffmann, as the two started their new partnership with five straight wins in route to a finals appearance. Although they fell to Oregon’s No. 2-seeded Joshua Charlton and Ty Gentry to a score of 6-3, 6-2, and missed out on an elusive Oracle ITA National Fall Championships berth, the duo showed promise and could be an integral part of Cal’s rotation going forward.
“If I had told them before the tournament started that they’d be in the finals of the doubles, they would have been pleased to make it to the finals. I think they have adjusted their sights. I’m sure that losing in the final, while it is a minor setback, is only going to inspire them to play better in the future,” Wright said.
The duo, seeded No. 9 in this bracket, had to learn on-the-fly and adapt to one another’s playing styles. By the finals, however, they had developed a sixth sense with each other, a trait necessary for doubles success.
“We knew what each other were doing sort of subconsciously, a little bit more, so our understanding of how each other played definitely improved, especially in the semifinals,” Draper said.
Cal’s “Killer B’s” (Bjorn and Ben) weren’t the only Bears pulling their weight in doubles. Juniors Paul Barretto and Can Kaya, as well as the tandem of junior Jacob Brumm and sophomore Kent Hunter, all reached the doubles quarterfinals. Hot on their heels were sophomore Yuta Kikuchi and senior Mert Zincirli, who were eliminated in the round of 16.
“We showed up to play and everyone played well. It was great looking down the courts in the round of 16 and seeing six guys competing and going out there and playing their game,” Draper said.
Doubles weren’t the only area in which Cal embraced the moment. Yuta Kikuchi represented the Bears in the singles final on Tuesday in a competition that had been whittled down from 128 athletes to just two.
Kikuchi’s promising run ended when he fell to St. Mary’s Damon Kesaris in a 7-6(2), 6-0 final. Despite falling in both finals, Wright is taking away positives from Cal’s performance.
“Having our guys playing in both singles and doubles finals talks to both the quality of our team, but also having so many of our guys in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals talks to the depth of our team,” Wright said.
Kikuchi led the singles charge, rattling off five consecutive victories after a first round bye. With his spot in the final, Kikuchi, who was ranked No. 1 in this bracket, earned a berth to the ITA National Fall Championships. The sophomore has improved as his Cal career has gone on.
“He’s a smarter player, his tactics and strategy are better, and he approaches matches with a better plan for how to play. He’s being more disciplined and sticking with that strategy, and that’s paying dividends for him,” Wright said.
Cal’s success this weekend marks the second time since 2017 that it has played in both the singles and doubles finals at regionals. Kikuchi is now the third Bear in four years to represent Cal in the singles final at ITA Regionals.
The early fall triumphs haven’t tamed the Bears’ hunger at all, however. The team still has its sights set on much more, and it uses that motivation as fuel every time the Bears take the court.
“We have to validate it every time when we go to play that we are earning it. I think we did a lot of that this weekend, but we still have a lot of work to do if we are going to be one of the top five or ten teams in the country in the spring,” Wright said.
The Pacific Invitational, hosted by the University of the Pacific in Stockton, is this coming weekend. With midterm season in full swing and concerns over this busy past weekend, Wright is looking ahead and wants to have everyone ready for the spring.
“It’ll probably be some guys who haven’t played as many matches this fall. We won’t be taking a full squad down there, that’s for sure,” Wright said.
The team has proven time and again that it is a much different squad from last year. The emphasis of the coming Pacific Invitational is to continue to build the next-man-up mentality and focus on cultivating depth that may be needed next semester.
Playing with a chip on its shoulder and self-described as more “mature,” Cal is looking to make noise in the spring. If this past weekend was any indicator, it seems the Bears are well on their way.
Kabir Rao covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].