Everyone roots for an underdog. They represent the best story in sports, the most relatable one and the most unexpected one. It’s refreshing to see an upset occur every once in a while, but when teams can string upsets together and enter Cinderella story territory, people start paying attention.
As the No. 15 team nationwide, Cal rarely enters contests as the underdog, but that was not the case when No. 10 UCLA and No. 3 USC paid a visit to Berkeley this past weekend. On Friday afternoon, the Bears enjoyed some home cooking and found themselves handing an upset to the Bruins — but unfortunately for Cal, it was the Trojans who discovered the recipe to success Saturday and prevented the Cinderella story.
“We gave ourselves some opportunities to win it, so overall, coming out of this as a split with the LA schools, it’s a start for us. It’s somewhere to build from. We’ve got to do better and we can do better, and we’re going to continue to build,” said Cal director of men’s tennis Peter Wright.
In their first home dual matches of the season, the Bears didn’t get caught up in the moment, making their presence known. Instrumental in leading the charge was junior Paul Barretto, whose vocal leadership instilled fear in his opponents. Not only did his animated celebrations and fist pumps draw “Go Bears” chants from the Cal faithful, but his energy was infectious and motivated his teammates.
“You see some first sets go, you lose the doubles point, it’s really important to show some sort of aggression in the beginning of the singles because if you don’t, matches like this can go away quite soon,” Barretto said. “I think it’s a huge difference because otherwise you look down the courts, you lose the doubles point, you lose a bunch of first sets and you know if you don’t have some force of energy out there, firing people up and showing some sort of intimidation, then it can go away quickly.”
Barretto’s fighting spirit was matched by his on-court performance, where he won two matches over the course of the weekend, including a singles upset over the Trojans’ Riley Smith, who is ranked No. 26 in the country. Barretto’s victory gave the Bears their only point in a hard-fought 4-1 loss to USC, but he wasn’t the only bright spot for his team. Junior Ben Draper also had a standout weekend and clinched Cal’s 4-2 victory over UCLA, but Wright came away impressed by his entire team.
“Ben didn’t get us to four, he was just the last point, so you can call him the slowest player we have maybe — but at the end of the day, there’s a lot of pressure that goes into that,” Wright said. “This is a more mature team, so no matter who’s in that position of being the last person to clinch the match, I feel tremendous confidence in our guys.”
While the Bears would have liked to start off their home stretch with two victories, the silver lining is that Wright’s 2-2 squad is even more motivated by how close they came Saturday.
“Overall, I think it was good tennis and we’re just going to have to put our heads down and go to work in practice and in our matches, we have to just stay focused,” Barretto said.
The Bears are looking to continue the momentum that they built in their strong showings this weekend, and if they can, they shouldn’t be considered underdogs again this season.
Kabir Rao covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].