Reaching the ITA Super Regionals is a feat that many collegiate tennis players strive for, but the majority fall short.
Only 42 players in men’s tennis were able to qualify for this year’s Northwest Super Regionals in Seattle, two being Bears seniors Yuta Kikuchi and Philip Hjorth. All the more impressively, out of the 42 players that qualified for the Super Regionals, Kickuchi and Hjorth were among the 22 that earned the right to participate in both singles and doubles.
This was not Kikuchi’s first rodeo in the ITA Super Regionals, however, as the former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year played in the NCAA Championship Round of 16 in 2019. That same year, as well as 2018, he also qualified for Fall Nationals. Coming into the Super Regionals, Kikuchi hoped to qualify for the Fall Nationals once again in his senior year. All in all, it’s safe to say that Kikuchi’s four-year tenure as a Bear has proved that the team’s investment in him is worthwhile.
“Fantastic,” said interim head coach Amanda Augustus in an email when asked to describe Kikuchi’s collegiate career in a word.
Hjorth, a transfer player that previously won the 2018 Danish men’s singles championship, has put together an excellent senior season. Unlike Kikuchi, Hjorth played in the Northwest Regionals prior to the Super Regionals. In doing so, he topped off his previously earned doubles berth with a singles berth at the Super Regionals.
“Both Philip and Yuta have had great fall seasons, and it was important for them to get a lot of matches,” Augustus said. “As older players and leaders on the team, the amount of match play that Yuta and Philip had at super regionals and regionals will help keep the entire team motivated as they train through the rest of the semester and prepare for January.”
As the only two Bears playing, Hjorth and Kikuchi faced the tall task of representing Cal with their performances. Notably, both players are international students, as Kikuchi is from Japan and Hjorth is from Denmark.
Hjorth and Kickuchi quickly proved that their Super Regionals berth was far from a fluke, both winning their first matchups in the Singles Main Draw Round of 32.
Earning a victory in the round of 32 meant both Bears advanced to the round of 16 and were one step closer to the finals. Hjorth was bested by his Stanford opponent by scores of 6-1 and 6-2, ending his impressive run that will give him high hopes moving forward. Kikuchi handily beat his respective Stanford opponent by scores of 6-2 and 6-3, advancing to the quarterfinals.
On the same day, Hjorth and Kikuchi also played in the Doubles Main Draw Round of 16 against a Gonzaga duo, losing 8-3 and ending the Bears’ doubles appearance in the Super Regionals.
As such, the stage was set for Kikuchi to play in the Quarterfinals for a chance to advance to the semifinals. Kikuchi capitalized on the opportunity, beating his Gonzaga opponent in two games with scores of 6-2 and 6-3.
Kikuchi then faced Stanford’s 48th-ranked top seed Arthur Fery in the semifinals, who previously eliminated Hjorth in the round of 16. This was both a chance to advance to the finals and to exact revenge for his teammate on one of Cal’s most hated rivals.
However, Kikuchi’s run and the Bears’ appearance at the Super Regionals ended after he was narrowly bested by Fery in two games with identical scores of 7-5.
Despite coming up short, the fact that Cal sent two players to compete in the Super Regionals alone highlights the team’s ability to compete with the best of the best — the ITA Super Regionals feature the top players from Division I programs.
“Every competitive opportunity is supremely important, and that’s why in tennis we have a lot of competitive opportunities all year long,” Augustus said. “I think with this potentially being the final event of the fall semester for the men’s team, it’s a good way to assess things and see what needs to get worked on for the rest of the semester.”
Further capturing the essence of this performance, this season is Cal’s first without three-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year Peter Wright and his winning culture. Nevertheless, upholding this winning culture was a priority for the Bears coming into this season, as evidenced by this performance.
AJ Alany covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].