The Arizona men’s tennis team is set to head down South this week for its biggest road trip of the season against No. 2 Baylor, No. 6 Texas and No. 26 Oklahoma. This is going to be a huge test for a Wildcats team that has started off the season strong at 15-1, the only loss coming against then No. 9 Florida back in January.
This will be Arizona’s first match up against top-10 teams since that early match up with the Gators, so these matches against the Bears, Longhorns and Sooners are really going to show everyone how much this Wildcats team has improved since the beginning of the season.
The Wildcats are coming off a dominating performance over Virginia Commonwealth University by a match score of 4-0. The Rams were undefeated entering the match, coming off a victory over then No. 17 Arizona State, but they were no problem for Arizona to handle.
Senior Filip Malbasic and freshman Gustaf Strom won their doubles match handily 6-2 over VCU’s Quentin Couland and Mario Duron on court three before the Rams got the best of Arizona on court one as the hard-hitting duo of Charles Bertimon and Lleyton Cronje defeated junior Jonas Ziverts and freshman Jett Middleton by a score of 6-3. That left it to court two to decide which team took home the doubles point as Arizona seniors Alejandro Reguant and Carlos Hassey took on VCU’s Inigo Torre Martin and Rayane Stable. It was an exciting back-and-forth match that wound up being decided in a tiebreaker that Reguant and Hassey won to give Arizona the point and all of the momentum heading into singles play.
“That doubles point is huge,” Arizona head coach Clancy Shields said. “People look at it as only one point, but most times whoever wins the doubles point wins [the match] and so the momentum was huge for us to get that. It was a really high-quality match; even people who don’t watch tennis thought it was entertaining. It was a huge point for us and just the way they did it. They won it with skill and with will, and they came through in a really clutch moment for us and then we carried that into obviously singles. It was a huge point. I don’t know, the match may have been different if we didn’t get that.”
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The Wildcats took care of business in singles play, winning the first three matches to seal a 4-0 win for the team. Malbasic picked up a very impressive win over Cronje, who had previously won his doubles match on court one, but singles play is a whole different ball game and Malbasic was able to wear Cronje out and eventually won 6-3, 6-1 in straight sets.
“My mindset was just to try to stay relaxed and play my game,” Malbasic said. “I think I had a good week of practice and just trust my game. Obviously he was a good player. You know, early on I knew he was going for his shots and playing aggressive. I just tried to play very solid not to give him any free points and I think at one point in the match, I got a pretty huge break for me and I kind of felt he was going off the track, both with his game and mentally, and then I just kind of steamrolled from there.”
Malbasic and Strom have both posted very impressive seasons so far, both individually in singles play and together in doubles play. The duo have been able to combat each other’s strengths and weaknesses to the tune of a 9-1 record together in doubles play so far this year.
“I love playing with [Malbasic],” Strom said. “I can almost see myself in [Malbasic] in multiple situations on the court and off the court. I would say we have certain areas that are stronger than others and I think we have some differences as well. He serves better than me, but as a doubles team I think we play well with each other just because we are fighting a lot and we both bring a lot of good energy.”
It has not only been in doubles play but singles play as well for Strom. The freshman out of Sweden is a clean 10-0 in singles play, including some wins in dominating fashion and some that he has just barely held on. He has been extremely impressive for someone who just got to campus back in January, and that has not gone unnoticed by Malbasic.
“It is great to have a freshman like [Strom],” Malbasic said. “I mean, he came here in January. It’s not easy. He has worked hard, he’s super professional and I think that is evident in the way he plays the game and also how he competes. The fact that he has not lost a match, it is just illustrating what he is doing on a daily basis.”
Outside of the early match against Florida, these upcoming matches are going to be three of the toughest opponents the Wildcats will have to play all season and they all come on the road in the span of less than a week. It is never easy to win on the road against any team, not to mention three road matches against highly touted teams.
The Wildcats boast a good balance of youth, experience and high energy players that are ready for any team they step on the court with, and they are ready to make a statement to the entire country this week.
“I know we’re good, but we’ll see how good,” Shields said. “These teams will be a test, especially on the road, but I find that our team really embraces challenges, and these are three really big challenges in front of us, so we’ll see how well we embrace it.”
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