Men's tennis preview: USC and UCLA

After winning three consecutive matches, the 18th ranked Huskies face their sternest tests of the season when third ranked USC and fourth ranked UCLA visit the hardcourts of Quillian Stadium for a pair of showdowns this weekend.

The outcomes of the matches will go a long way in determining which team earns the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament as Pac-10 champion, as USC currently leads the conference with a 3-0 mark, while the Huskies (3-1) lurk only a half match behind in second place and UCLA and Stanford share third with 2-1 records.

The Huskies come into the weekend with a 13-6 overall record, and much of their success has come from the strong singles play of junior All-American Alex Vlaski, freshman Alex Slovic and junior Peter Scharler.

For the season, playing in the top singles position, Vlaski has compiled a record of 15-3, while Slovic has won 16 of 18 matches in the #2 slot and Scharler has gone 15-2 while playing in both the #4 and #5 positions.

After dropping their Pac-10 opener at Stanford 6-1 on Friday, March 26, the Huskies rebounded the next day to beat #29 California on the road and then beat #37 Arizona State and #21 Arizona at home, fueled by a combined 6-0 record from Vlaski, Slovic and Scharler in singles play.

Against California, Vlaski defeated Balasz Veress 6-3,6-1, while Slovic defeated Wayne Wong 6-4,6-2 and Scharler prevailed over Patrick Briaud 7-6,3-6,1-0. Then against Arizona State Vlaski overcame a slow start to defeat Chris Stewart 6-4, 7-5, while Slovic dispatched Clinton Letcher 6-3, 6-1 and Scharler triumphed over Ryan McBride 6-4, 6-3. The trio spent a little more time on the court against Arizona but still emerged victorious, as Vlaski defeated Roger Matalonga in a three set slugfest 6-4,1-6,6-1 in a match which featured many long rallies.

Slovic had to go to a second set tiebreak against Whi Kim but still came out on top 6-3,7-6(2). After the Huskies clinched the four points necessary to record the team victory, Scharler went to a third set super tiebreak against Daniel Andrus and eventually prevailed 3-6, 7-6(5), 1-0(7).

Vlaski and Slovic both own spots in the national singles rankings, with Vlaski #9 and Slovic #42, while the duo of Vlaski and freshman Daniel Chu currently ranks #43 in doubles.

When the season began Vlaski and Slovic formed the top doubles pair but after struggles at the #2 and #3 positions, coach Matt Anger decided to shuffle his lineup, going with Vlaski and Chu at #1, Slovic and senior Nick Weiss at #2, and Scharler and junior Christoph Palmanshofer at #3. The move has paid dividends, as Vlaski and Chu have gone 5-2 while Slovic and Weiss have yet to taste defeat, going 7-0.

As for the Trojans and Bruins, they will bring plenty of firepower of their own into the matches this weekend and both come to Seattle following sweeps of Stanford and California.

After beginning the dual match season ranked #21 in the nation the Trojans have moved to #3 in the nation on the strength of eight consecutive victories, all against ranked teams. They boast five of the top 100 singles players in the nation in Adriano Biasella (23), Johan Berg (73), Jamil Al-Agba (83), Drew Hoskins (94) and Ruben Torres (95), and the #12 doubles pair of Daniel Langre and Hoskins.

UCLA will visit Seattle for the second time this season, after previously participating in the 2004 USTA/ITA National Men's Indoor Tennis Championships at the Nordstrom Tennis Center in February. The Bruins entered that tournament as the sixth seed and disposed of #10 Kentucky 4-2 in the first round, upset third seeded Florida 4-2 in the quarterfinals and then prevailed over seventh seeded Mississippi 4-3 in perhaps the most exciting match of the tournament in the semifinals.

The match between the Bruins and Rebels ultimately came down to the top singles match between 12th ranked Tobias Clemens of UCLA and 20th ranked Catalin Gard of Mississippi, with Clemens finally outlasting Gard 6-3, 5-7,7-5 in two and a half hours to give the Bruins the victory and a berth in the final against defending NCAA champion and top seeded Illinois, where they came up on the losing end of a 4-0 score.

The Bruins return to Seattle with five ranked singles players: Clemens (5), Alberto Francis (52), Kris Kwinta (62), Chris Lam (82), and Philip Gruendler (106). They also return to Seattle stronger than when they first visited, as they have added Luben Pampoulov, a junior from Austria, who just became eligible and made a successful debut against #29 California and #10 Stanford. Playing #2 singles, he defeated the Bears' Veress 6-1,6-2 and then followed with a win over KC Corkery of Stanford 6-1,7-6(5). Francis and Kwinta also currently rank #8 in the nation in doubles.

The Huskies will face USC at 1:30 on Friday, April 9 and UCLA on Saturday, April 10 before concluding the dual match season at home against Oregon on Saturday, April 17.

According to coach Anger, "Since Stanford lost to Cal yesterday 4-3, that leaves only USC unbeaten in conference play. That means that the winner of our match on Friday will be in 1st place. Obviously, the next two weekends are important for the Pac-10 standings as well as the NCAA Championships."

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