Cal Looks to Build on 1996 Season
With injuries affecting the playing status of several of Cal's players last season, the remaining members of the Golden Bear men's tennis team were forced to play at a higher level earlier than expected. But the experience certainly paid off by the end of the year, as the team earned its third straight postseason berth.
This season, Cal will use that knowledge to build on its 1996 accomplishments, especially considering that two of the Bears top players elected not to compete collegiately this year. With Michael Hill, ranked No. 9 nationally in the fall and slated to be Cal's No. 1 singles player, deciding to take his game to the professional level, and Kian Raiszadeh choosing to concentrate on gaining admission to medical school, the Bears will once again be a young squad, but one that has the capability to beat anyone in the country.
"This year, the attitude on the team is 'We're playing'," said Peter Wright, who enters his fourth season as head coach of the Bears. "I'm confident in the ability of our players to go out and succeed and win our matches."
Cal's top returnee in 1997 will be Bobby Mahal, who was 8-3 at No. 2 singles last year. Also back is sophomore Chris Santoso (7-11 in 1996 dual matches), who advanced to the quarterfinals of the Rolex regionals last fall, and Alex Sueur, who saw limited action in 1996, but should make an impact this year.
"Mahal is moving into our top spot," said Wright. "He's matured a lot over the last couple of years and he's one of the guys who is going to be leading the ship. Sueur is a senior this year and has really turned the corner. He had a great fall, a really outstanding fall and he's really excited about his senior year. Santoso used his freshman year for maturation and should win his share of Pac-10 matches this year."
Another Bear who figures to play a big role in 1997 is junior Nathan Jackmon, who teams with Mahal to form the nation's No. 11 team in the fall ITA rankings.
"This year is going to be Jackmon's year," said Wright. "He's always needed a lot of play and we haven't been able to find it for him. It's a different story now, and he'll get a chance to show in singles what an outstanding player he can be. He has the potential to be as strong in singles as he is in doubles."
Junior David Sutton, who was 10-8 for the Bears in dual match competition last year, kicked off this season with good results during the fall. Most significant was his play at the Rolex regionals, as he made an appearance in the quarterfinals of the singles bracket while advancing to the final in doubles. "Sutton is more focused than he has ever been," said Wright. "Plus, he has some new additions to his game which should help him this spring."
Junior Minh Le, sophomore Chris Cornell, and freshmen Brian Fernando and Adam Gross will all have chances to play over the course of the season. It is an opportunity for them to prove themselves under dual match conditions, something they are looking forward to doing.
Wright and associate head coach Cordell Ho expect the Bears to continue their tradition of strong doubles play. Mahal and Jackmon have already proven they are up to the challenge by winning the Rolex regionals doubles title in October. They garner a No. 11 national ranking heading into the spring and are scheduled to travel to the Rolex National Indoors in early February. Complementing Mahal and Jackmon will be Sutton and Santoso, who will start the season at No. 2, and Le and Sueur, who should make up Cal's No. 3 pair.
"I think we can do very well this year," said Wright. "I'm looking for our team to make it to the NCAA's. We don't have the best players in the Pac-10, but I think that we have a solid team. Our strong group of guys is capable of playing together out on the court better than they can as individuals."
Ho has made it a top priority for the team to be in top shape both physically and mentally for the rigorous schedule that lies ahead. Wary not to skew preparation too much toward technical tennis, Ho places emphasis on the basic fitness of the body and mind. "Regardless of how technically sound a player may be, if he is not ready for a long three-set match from a fitness standpoint, his execution will suffer," said Ho. "Our players are in the best shape of their lives, which should pay great dividends."
As the Bears embark on their 1997 campaign, Cal faces one of the toughest schedules in the country with opponents including Stanford, UCLA, USC and Pepperdine. "No matter who the opponent, the approach to each match will be the same," said Wright. "We'll be using each match as a starting point and work on improvement. The experience, win or lose, is what we hope to learn from, turning it into a positive so we can come out and be better next time around. We have the ability, and we can win a lot of matches. It just depends on how much we learn as we play and how hard we go at it."