Friday at 3 p.m. on the campus of UCLA in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, California, one of college tennis’s most storied rivalries will return for another instalment as the Bruins host the crosstown USC Trojans.
Back in 1983, I was fortunate to be part of this great rivalry, a freshman on Glenn Bassett’s defending NCAA championship team. At UCLA, we played only the best teams in the country. Every match was a battle.
Coached by Dick Leach, the 1983 USC team was one of the deepest college tennis teams in NCAA history. We met them for the first time that year in April, several months into what was already a very busy season.
There was something about my first USC-UCLA match that felt different.
Extra nerves, extra tension
To keep ourselves loose before a match, my teammates and I usually would play backgammon or cards – nothing overly serious, just a lot of playful banter to keep the jitters down. On this day, there were no cards dealt, no dice rolled. We all sat there mumbling to each other in hushed tones. The tension in the room was palpable; I still remember it as though it were last week. It was undoubtedly the most nervous I had ever felt before a tennis match.
Finally, match time arrived. We took the long walk down the hall, through the lobby of the dorm, out into the quad and then to the top of the steps of the old Sunset Canyon tennis courts. It was a natural amphitheater carved out of a hillside, surrounded by majestic pine and eucalyptus trees.
As we walked down the steps to take the courts, the USC team came into view. They were the same guys we’d been playing since we were kids. Under normal conditions, they were friends. But there was nothing normal about these conditions. We were about to play for our university against our crosstown rivals. Bragging rights for the city of Los Angeles were on the line.
I played No. 3 singles that day against the late Todd Witsken, who would go on to become a top-50 singles player on the ATP Tour and a French Open doubles champion. I had been playing and training against Witsken for many years. I rarely lost to him in practice but I was never able to beat him when it mattered, even if every match went to three sets.
Keep winning, keep your spot
My choosing UCLA wasn’t exactly the smartest decision if I hoped to see a lot of action my freshman year. I was the fourth-ranked recruit on a strong incoming class, and we all had to compete for playing time with several returning players from the national championship squad. (Future top-40 singles player and three-time Grand Slam doubles champion Jim Pugh couldn’t even break into the top six doubles player on that 1983 team).
I edged out half a dozen players – including Pugh – for the sixth and last singles spot. In Coach Bassett’s meritocracy, if a player won, he kept his spot. If he lost, he would move down. I kept winning; the 22 dual-match win streak to start my college career tied the freshman record of a guy named … Jimmy Connors. It was one short of the all-time UCLA record.
I knew little of UCLA’s storied tennis history. But as my streak grew and I closed in on these records, I learned quickly. All of that was on the line when Witsken and I took the court.
Streak on the line
It almost felt like a fever. Much more nervous than usual, an oppressive buzz took over my body. I served for the first set at 5-3 lead, only to dropping it 7-5. The second set was a replay; up 5-3, I failed to serve it out. Before I knew it, it was over. I recall him getting really excited. I remember thinking how cool it was that a player of his stature would get that excited for beating little ol’ me. (Three years later I would watch Witsken get just as excited after defeating Connors on the stadium court at the US Open.)
The streak was over. The magnitude of the moment and the rivalry weighed heavily upon me, placing me squarely outside my comfort zone. At no point did I ever think I was going to win. I feared at some point my tennis clock would strike midnight, reverting me back to my old “pretty good” self.
In college tennis there is little time for remorse. The teams were tied 3-3 after the singles. The doubles would decide it.
I was playing No. 3 doubles with Mark Basham against Witsken and his partner Jim Agate. The first and second doubles teams split. The match score was 4-4, and it was on us to bring it home.
We raced out to a 5-1 lead in the third. And then it all started going wrong. We had a match point; I promptly drilled a second-serve backhand return into the bottom of the net. We lost 7-6 in the third set; UCLA went down to USC 5-4.
The following couple days were a blur as I walked around in what I could best describe as a state of shock. I had choked away a chance to beat USC and I wasn’t getting over it that easily. I proceeded to lose my next six matches, and struggled mightily the rest of the season to regain any semblance of my prior form.
(Nine years ago, the two squads put their rivalry on the line for the Pac-10 championship.)
Win or lose, an honour
But as I reflect back on my first taste of the USC-UCLA rivalry, now 34 years removed, my takeaway remains what an honor it was to represent my school in such a meaningful event, and what a gift it was to have been part of a chapter in one of college tennis’s greatest rivalries.
I was talking to Steve Johnson Sr., father of former USC star and current ATP Tour top-25 player Steve Jr. at a recent event. When the subject veered to the importance of college tennis, he said this:
“You know why a player goes to USC? A player goes to USC to play UCLA. Period”
My view was the same, the teams reversed. A player goes to UCLA … to play USC. Period.
On Friday, the 2017 chapter of USC vs UCLA will go on with new players and new coaches. But the intensity of the rivalry, the timelessness of the memories it creates, will be just as they were for me all those years ago.