Rivalries are one of the greatest institutions of sports. Rivals bring out the best in us, driving us to the next level in order to claim victory. Rivals are a part of our identity. If our rivals didn’t exist, we would not be who we are.
On Friday and Saturday, the Cal men’s tennis team will get another taste of its rivals. After falling to No. 11 Stanford last Sunday, the Bears are getting ready to welcome their Pac-12 adversaries from down south: UCLA and USC. Cal knows what it means to beat these teams at the Hellman Tennis Complex in Berkeley, and the Bears are having no trouble honing in on their skills for this weekend.
“We don’t need any motivation when we play our conference rivals. (The Bears) get the importance of all these matches. They’re extremely fired up to be having USC and UCLA on our home courts and we’re excited to open our season,” said Peter Wright, the director of men’s tennis at Cal.
The Bears are ranked No. 13 in the nation, but according to polls, they aren’t the better team in either of the upcoming home stints. While the Bruins sit at No. 10 nationwide, the Trojans are riding high as the third-best team in the country. Wright believes that having an underdog mentality and facing such stiff competition early in the season could pay dividends later.
“Our first four matches of the season – three of them are going to be against top-15 teams, so it’s hitting the ground running but it’s also setting us up to be a strong team in the middle-to-end part of the season and as we get ready for the postseason, too,” Wright said.
The same approach helped Wright’s team the last time it faced off against its Los Angeles rivals. In the 2019 Pac-12 semifinals, Cal downed UCLA and advanced to the finals, where the Bears met none other than USC. The Trojans handled the Bears in a 4-0 tally, but the loss served as yet another growing experience for a team that now feels it can get over the hump.
“I would talk about playing the long game. The bulk of them are juniors this year and they’ve been in the system for two years now. This is their third year and they’re ready to really bust out. We’re getting a reasonable amount of respect across the country in some of the polls and that’s nice, but we’ve got to go out and make it happen. Our guys are about proving who we are and doing that on a daily basis,” Wright said.
While the Bears look for two wins this weekend, which would improve their record to 3-1, they are fully aware that there is a long season ahead. Regardless of the outcome, the team knows it can count on one another to continue to improve as time goes on.
“These guys are special people and special players, and we know there is going to be ups and downs in a season, but the comradery and team chemistry is second to none,” Wright said.
Camaraderie and team chemistry go a long way in making a team great — and Cal is well on its way — but what could push it over the top is victories against its rivals this weekend.
Kabir Rao covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].