Written by Sarah Bergstrom, USC blog contributor
The USC men's tennis team is perfect in Pac-12 play this season and is riding a 15-match win streak coming into its final regular season match on Friday. The match is important for many reasons including the potential for a perfect regular season, the chance for the top seed in next week's Pac-12 Championships and the celebration of seniors Ray Sarmiento and Michael Grant. According to Sarmiento, the past four years have gone by like a speeding bullet train, and while it's bittersweet to see his time at USC nearing its end, he's looking forward to finishing the best way possible.
"It's my last match and obviously I want to go out with a W. Beating UCLA is the best way to finish the season. We just need to give it our all and leave it on the court," said the senior. "UCLA is a talented team. But we've just got to take care of ourselves and do what we do."
Focusing on the team seems to have worked out well for the Trojans in the 2014 season as they boast a 24-2 record with just one regular season game left to play. Sarmiento, ranked No. 9 in the nation in ITA singles, led the team all season and continued to build on the Trojan legacy he will soon be leaving behind.
"I always call him pound-for-pound the greatest tennis player I've ever coached," describes head coach Peter Smith. "He's like Pacquiao."
A comparison like that is hard to come by, but Sarmiento's career at USC has been nothing short of impressive. The senior helped the Trojans win an NCAA Team Championship in his first two seasons and he's racked up a 101-31 overall record, All-Pac-12 and All-American honors.
"He's going to finish a four-time All American. And what he's done here over the course of four years, winning two team NCAA Championships, being a great leader and being the most competitive guy out there every single day is remarkable. Friday is really going to be quite a day," explained the head coach.
Smith, who's coached some of the greatest players in USC men's tennis history, sees a lot in Sarmiento's competitive spirit that reminds him of a certain former All-American. Like two-time NCAA Singles champion Steve Johnson, Sarmiento has a certain duality on and off the court. According to Smith, the senior is always laughing and always smiling, but the second he picks up the racquet, everything changes.
"Ray is this very competitive guy when he gets on the court," Smith said. "He is so talented. He hits the ball so big. He can play from any area of the court, he has a real complete game."
Often regarded primarily for his contributions on the court, Sarmiento's teammates say he brings just as much to the team as a leader. Sophomore Max de Vroome remembers Sarmiento immediately taking him under his wing when he arrived at USC as a freshman from the Netherlands.
"When I came here last year he was the oldest on the team. He really took care of me and ever since then we grew really close. He's a great teammate, a great captain and a great leader. He works really hard," explains de Vroome.
Since first stepping foot on campus four years ago, Sarmiento has seen himself develop in all aspects of his game. While he feels ready to move on into the next chapter of his life, the senior is thankful for every second of time spent as a Trojan and knows that what he's learned both as a student and as an athlete is invaluable.
"As a player and as a person I've seen myself grow. And I think the second part of that is the most important," explained Sarmiento. "I think it's definitely been my coaching, my team, and being here in college. Some of these kids go pro right away and skip the whole college experience. I think there's no benefit in that. College is the best way to grow as a person and as a player."
Sarmiento will be returning to USC in the fall to finish his sociology degree while also playing tennis on the professional tour. For now, Sarmiento has his focus on finishing this season on the best note. With the NCAA Championships a few weeks away, the first item on the Trojan's to-do list is beating crosstown rival UCLA in their final regular season match.
No. 3 USC takes on No. 5 UCLA on Friday in the deciding match for the top spot in the Pac-12 but according to the head coach, his team is focused on a different prize.
"The goal is always to beat UCLA," said Coach Smith. "We don't care where we play them. We could play them at 8 a.m. in Chicago, we could play them at 6 a.m. in Hawaii. Yes, Winning the Pac-12 is something we'd love to do, but mostly we just want to beat UCLA. Period. And that's the beauty of the rivalry."