No. 1 USC Men Set Up Defense Of ITA National Indoor Title
The No. 1 Trojans are the top seed in the 2021 ITA National Team Indoor Championship, where they look to defend the 2020 title they won at last year's event. USC (7-0) opens up with a quarterfinal bout on Friday (Feb. 12) against host Illinois at 6:30 p.m. CT at Atkins Tennis Center. A win there would push the Trojans into a 6:30 p.m. CT semifinal on Saturday (Feb. 13). The championship match is set for 6:30 p.m. CT on Sunday (Feb. 14) following a 3:30 p.m. CT third-place match.
ITA NATIONAL TEAM INDOORS CHAMPIONSHIP CENTRAL
USC took to the indoor courts on Wednesday, taking on No. 19 Kentucky in a neutral-site match at Dodds Tennis Center in Champaign, Ill. In the tilt with the Wildcats, USC had to dig out of a doubles deficit. The Trojans would string together the singles wins they needed, with Riley Smith securing the clincher in an eventual 4-3 win. USC would tally the first win of the day with top-ranked Daniel Cukierman and Riley Smith's swift 6-1 win on court one in doubles. But the Wildcats fired back with victories on courts two and three to set up for singles with Kentucky up 1-0 in the match. Momentum would shift when two Trojans hammered out straight-set wins in singles for get USC the lead. On court six, Jake Sands sprinted to a 6-2,6-3 win over Yasha Zemel to tie things up 1-1, and then #26 Mor Bulis stormed to a 6-3, 7-5 win on court three over Millen Hurrion to get USC a step ahead. At the No. 4 spot, Lodewijk Weststrate continued his winning ways in delivering a 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 decision over Kentucky's #123 Joshua Lapadat, putting USC a win away from clinching victory. The Wildcats interrupted that surge when #45 Liam Draxl snapped a 12-match win streak held by USC's #1 Daniel Cukierman with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win on court one to make it 3-2. That's when #19 Riley Smith pounced and closed out his three-set comeback effort on court two, beating Gabriel Diallo 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 to lock in the win with USC up 4-2. The match would play out, and the Wildcats netted one more point with César Bourgois's 2-6, 7-6 (6), 7-5 win over Bradley Frye on court five.
LAST YEAR'S CHAMPS
The Trojans were the No. 2 seeds in the 2020 ITA National Team Indoor Championship draw, and opened with a tight 4-2 win over No. 11 TCU to move into the quarterfinals. There, USC was up against No. 8 Stanford for the second time this year, and the Trojans made quick work of the Cardinal in this one with a 4-0 sweep. In the semifinals, USC faced No. 13 Michigan, and the Trojans had their hands full. Down 3-1 to the Wolverines, the Trojans gutted out three three-set comebacks, capped by a tiebreak clincher from No. 1 Daniel Cukierman on court two. That got USC into the title match, where the Trojans had a rematch of last year's NCAA Round of 16 in facing off against North Carolina. The Tar Heels had ended USC's season in that round in 2019, and the Trojans were determined for payback. The doubles point came down to a tiebreaker on court one after the Tar Heels won a quick on one court three and USC's Mor Bulis and Brandon Holt responded with a quick-fire answer for the Trojans on court two. At the top spot, USC's #58 Daniel Cukierman and Riley Smith trailed in the tiebreaker, but battled back to claim a 7-6 (5) win over Blumberg/Cernoch and plug a 1-0 lead on the board for the Trojans. In singles, USC's #24 Brandon Holt, who had battled illness all week, had to retire from his match with William Blumberg on court one. That gave the Tar Heels a point to tie it up 1-1, but the Trojans were undeterred. Holt's fellow captain, #1 Daniel Cukierman, shouldered the load on court two and spun a 6-2, 6-1 win over #60 Ben Sigouin to tug the Trojans back ahead, up 2-1. Cukierman's straight-set trend continued for the Trojans. On court five, #65 freshman Stefan Dostanic stood tall with a smooth 6-1, 6-4 win over Brian Cernoch to get USC into winning position, up 3-1. As matches on courts three and six stayed tight, #15 Mor Bulis hit the gas in his match on court four. The sophomore secured the championship for his Trojans on his 6-3, 6-1 win over #80 Josh Peck, and USC hit celebration mode on the indoor courts in Madison. Cukierman was perfect in doubles and singles throughout the tourney, winning all four doubles matches with Riley Smith at the top spot and collecting four singles wins. Cukierman had the comeback clincher to beat No. 13 Michigan in the semifinals. He also posted a three-set clincher in the Round of 16 win over No. 11 TCU. Smith also was undefeated at the event, winning those four doubles matches with Cukierman and claiming two singles wins with two matches suspended by Trojan victories.
A VIEW FROM THE TOP
USC entered the new year with authority, boasting a sweep of the ITA national rankings as the No. 1 team with the No. 1 singles player and No. 1 doubles pair. As the Trojans prepare to start up their 2021 campaign, USC head coach Brett Masi has his team at the top, while senior Daniel Cukierman stands tall as the nation's No. 1 singles player as well as pairing with returning senior Riley Smith for that No. 1 doubles rank. When 2020 competition was suspended back in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, USC was coming off a big victory at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships. The Trojans were No. 1 in the nation, and Cukierman was the No. 1 singles player. Now 10 months later, Masi's Trojans remain the leaders in the nation, and Cukierman is resoundingly the nation's top gun with his top individual rankings. Cukierman had posted a 26-2 singles record in his junior season, winning the Oracle ITA Masters and Sherwood Collegiate singles titles along the way to his No. 1 stance. He and Riley Smith had paired up for a 10-1 doubles mark last season, also claiming the Sherwood Collegiate crown. Both earned ITA All-American honors in 2020, and both captains are back with all their stripes to lead the top-ranked Trojans into 2021. Smith also has lodged himself in the top-20 of the national rankings in gripping the No. 19 spot on the singles ladder. Cukierman and Smith have plenty of firepower alongside them. A testament to the Trojans' No. 1 team ranking, USC brings back its depth charge of talent. Three other Trojans also have earned national rankings to kick off 2021. Junior Mor Bulis is ranked No. 26, and sophomores Ryder Jackson and Stefan Dostanic weigh in at No. 79 and No. 104, respectively. In doubles, in addition to Cukierman and Smith's upgrade to No. 1 after finishing up 2020 at No. 5, USC has Bulis and Dostanic paired up with a spot at No. 50. The closest the Trojans have gotten to such an ITA rankings sweep according to records was in 2012 and 2010 when USC was No. 1 as a team, had the No. 1 singles player and the No. 2 doubles pair in the nation.
Senior Daniel Cukierman picked up the first weekly prize of the year from the Pac-12 in securing his third career selection as Pac-12 Player of the Week on Feb. 4. Cukierman was perfect in singles and doubles as the Trojans tallied two dual-match wins to improve to 3-0 on the year. Most notably, top-ranked Cukierman came through with a three-set comeback win in singles to beat UCLA's #10 Keegan Smith in the ITA Kickoff Weekend championship match, clinching victory for the Trojans to punch up USC's 13th straight title at the event and ensuring USC would make a 13th straight trip to ITA National Team Indoor Championship. USC won the national title at that event last year. Also against the Bruins, Cukierman paired with fellow senior Riley Smith — together ranked as the No. 1 doubles team in the nation — for a win on court one before coming through with the singles clincher later. Later in the week, USC took on LMU and served up a sweep of the Lions thanks in part to wins from Cukierman in doubles and singles again. Cukierman has now won 11 consecutive singles matches dating back to last season.
BY THE NUMBERS
USC's winningest player to date is newcomer Lodewijk Weststrate, who has churned out nine singles wins in his freshman campaign as a Trojan so far. A step behind him at 8-0 is sophomore Stefan Dostanic, with senior Riley Smith at 7-0 as USC enters ITA National Team Indoor action. In doubles, USC has utilized 10 different pairs during dual-match play so far, with Daniel Cukierman and Riley Smith holding the edge at a 3-0 mark on the year.
The coronavirus pandemic put a stop to activities around the world, including all NCAA competition. When the 2020 season was suspended, the USC men's tennis team was standing tall as the top-ranked team in the nation for the fifth consecutive week — the Trojans' longest run at No. 1 since 2012. At 13-1 overall and recently crowned as the ITA National Indoor Champions, USC was looking like a solid frontrunner for the 2020 NCAA Championship under the direction of first-year head coach Brett Masi. Masi had taken over the reins of the Trojan tennis program in August 2019, leading a talented USC roster that featured a strong blend of veterans and youth. Senior All-Americans Brandon Holt and Riley Smith were joined by former team manager Rae Lan to round out USC's 2020 senior class. The savvy Daniel Cukierman stood tall as USC's lone junior on the roster, and he'd work his way to rank No. 1 in the nation in singles by the close of competition. USC's sophomore class featured Mor Bulis, Bradley Frye and Jake Sands, who were all coming off of solid first seasons as Trojans. Bulis shined particularly bright in the fall and cracked the top-10 singles rankings at No. 9 in the land at the same time that his fellow Israeli teammate Cukierman stepped to No. 1. USC's two newcomers were feisty freshmen Stefan Dostanic and Ryder Jackson. Both would show their mettle in the fall, and both became mainstays in the dual-match lineup that saw the Trojans take over the nation.