There was a lot of excitement and electricity on the courts at the LaNelle Robson Tennis Center this past weekend as the Arizona men’s tennis team picked up two huge wins over then No. 15 USC and No. 22 UCLA to remain undefeated in conference play.
The Wildcats entered this weekend 2-102 against the Trojans and had not beaten USC at home since before 2000, along with a 1-72 record against the Bruins making it a historic weekend for the team during a time where they were celebrating Alejandro Reguant and Igor Karpovets during senior weekend.
“It was one of these wins that we needed to have after Texas, the losses in Texas,” head coach Clancy Shields said. “We got so close from having a match point in Texas, and then a little bit deflated coming home and I thought our guys responded really well. Obviously, those are pretty daunting records, 102-2, you know 1-72, I mean those are pretty insurmountable records so that was cool for our guys to get the win.”
The Wildcats opened up the weekend with a win over USC on Friday, March 26. After winning the doubles point to take an early 1-0 lead, Arizona was on the brink of dropping the match after falling behind 3-2 with two matches still to finish. Freshman Gustaf Strom tied the match up with a win over USC’s Riley Smith to tie the match at 3-3. Smith, who was ranked No. 14 in the country entering this match, was the complete opposite of Strom in play style, standing in at 6’7 with a hard serve and hard-hitting groundstrokes. Shields had a funny comparison between Strom and Smith in this match.
“It was like David and Goliath,” Shields said. “You look at [Smith] who is 6’7, massive serve, big guy and you see [Strom] who is running around doing everything he can to win that match. Just proud of the kid. He is a freshman, while that kid is a super senior, fifth-year senior, and he is finding ways to win. And really our whole team, we were down and out in that match so many times and one of our words that has been the cornerstone of our program is relentless, to never give up, to never give in. There were so many times where our team could have said this isn’t going to happen. We’re going to lose again; USC is too good, but we just stayed in it. We never gave up, never gave in and at the finish line, that’s why it looks as sweet as it does.”
This win bumped Strom up from No. 30 in the country to No. 15 per ITA tennis rankings, which is the highest-ranking an Arizona men’s tennis player has had since the turn of the century. Despite playing a tall, hard-hitting player in Smith, the freshman stepped right up to the challenge and faced it head-on.
“I would say it is basically the same the way I play,” Strom said. “It kind of maybe changes a little bit because of the way [Smith] is playing. I need to make a little more changes in my game in my way of playing as well. For example, in the returns, since he is serving really good, it is important to be very calm in the head and mentally, so I thought I did really great, and I thought that was one of my best matches so far here this season.”
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The win by Strom tied the match up 3-3, putting all eyes on Carlos Hassey and his match against USC’s Lodewjk Westrate, who was ranked No. 122 in the country. After winning the first set fairly easily 6-1, Hassey dropped the second set 4-6. This led to a final third set that would go on to determine the outcome of the entire match.
“The match definitely changed,” Hassey said. “I was playing pretty well in the first set. [Westrate] started playing a little better in the second set, so anything can really happen in the third set, so I just tried to stay as focused as possible. He played a great third set as well. I mean, I was down 3-1 and a break, so I just kept fighting and thought it was never over. I am just happy to get on top and get the victory for my team, so it was a great feeling.”
One common theme from this team is how much they all care about the seniors. Hassey dedicated this match win against USC to the team’s seniors.
“We just try to practice the same way every day,” Hassey said. “We try to live moments like that. I mean, our coach tells us every time that it is going to come down to our court one day and how we respond and how we’re going to think and do stuff. It came down to my court. It has happened before, so I had a little bit of experience with it but it was an awesome experience of course just because it was for our seniors and it was a great feeling.”
The Wildcats followed this huge win over USC with another big win over UCLA the following Sunday on March 28. After losing the opening doubles point to fall behind 1-0, the Wildcats responded in a big way by sweeping the singles play to win the match 4-1. Shields mentioned earlier in the season how the team that usually wins the doubles point goes on to win the match, but the Wildcats were able to overcome the Bruins despite losing that doubles point.
“I just like how our team responded after having probably the biggest win in program history,” Shields said. “Then, we back it up and kind of routinely handle one of the better teams in the country which, in my opinion, that’s a top-5, top-10 team in UCLA. I am proud of our team. We know we have a big target on our back now, and I am really excited to see how we handle it.”
One of the turning points of the match was in Filip Malbasic’s match against UCLA’s Drew Baird, who was ranked No. 57 in the country entering this match. After dropping a break early in the first set, Malbasic battled back to win the first set 7-5 before cruising in the second set to a 7-5, 6-0 win. This gave the Wildcats a 3-1 match lead before Nick Lagaev finished the match off for Arizona on court six.
“In the juniors, [Baird] was No. 12 in the world,” Shields said. “He played all the grand slams, very good player, and [Malbasic] was riding on zero confidence and I think that’s what was so cool about that moment. He wasn’t playing his best. He had no confidence, had kind of lost a few matches in a row and he just kept fighting for our team. When nothing is working, you just play for your teammates, your brothers, the seniors and that is the performance we got. I am really proud of him for digging deep and playing for something bigger than himself.”
After already breaking the record for the most singles wins in the history of the Wildcats program earlier this year, senior Alejandro Reguant is on the brink of breaking another record. He is two wins away from tying the overall win record at Arizona. Hassey, who is roommates with Reguant, sees the hard work the senior puts in every day firsthand.
“[Reguant] has worked so hard all five years he has been here,” Hassey said. “He has just worked super hard. He has always been a leader to all of us, especially me. I mean we’re roommates too, so I see all of the work that he puts into it and I mean he deserves it. He is a great guy and I love him to death. It is a great accomplishment to him, and I think it’ll be great when he passes it.”
Despite most of the team playing for the seniors year, Reguant and Karpovets have said it is about the group as a whole and not just them. Shields noted how unselfish every player is on this team and great it is to work with all of them.
“I think our team has been wanting to make the year about [Reguant] and [Karpovets] and our seniors,” Shields said. “The seniors have been really unselfish saying it is about the group. It is not about us, and you know you got a good group when everyone is super unselfish.”
Shields had nothing but praise for Reguant and his leadership during his time with the tennis team at Arizona.
“[Reguant] will probably break the record for the most wins ever, but you would never know it,” Shields said. “I mean he is the most humble kid. He is the most likable guy you will ever meet and honestly, I couldn’t imagine a better ambassador for Arizona.”
The schedule was very weird this year with senior day happening in the middle of March. Shields was not shy to criticize the Pac-12 scheduling this year for his team.
“Honestly, I am not happy,” Shields said. “I feel like we always get the short stick of the Pac-12 scheduling. It probably happens in other sports. The California schools really dictate that and so maybe now that we’re winning, maybe we’ll get a little bit more of a look. I don’t know. They are quarter system schools. They can’t play during finals, but we were really moved up in February to play conference play, which I thought was a little unfair, and having a senior day in March feels weird, especially when you play all of April.”
Shields said that despite the scheduling, the team embraces the challenges on the road as they look to finish the season strong.
“At the end of the day, we’ll play anywhere, anytime and any place, and we’re excited to play and honestly we like the road trips,” Shields said. “We get to know each other better and we like the challenges on the road.”
The Wildcats currently sit at the top of the standings in the Pac-12 with a 17-4 record overall and 4-0 in conference play. They have four road matches remaining to finish off the regular season, beginning with a match on Friday, April 2 against Cal.
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