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May 20, 2009

Pure Silver

Well, that sucked.

I know, I know-it's hard to complain about a second-place national finish in women's tennis, especially from a program that has never done better. I get the big picture, and I embrace it: In Amanda Augustus' two years as Cal's coach, she has guided the Bears to the two highest NCAA finishes in their history, each time traversing a harrowing path to the championship match that included an upset of the nation's No. 1 team. We're lucky to have her, and next year's Bears will be fully capable of making another stirring run at a first-ever title.

But that didn't make Tuesday's 4-0 defeat to Duke in College Station, Tex. any less painful to watch.

































One reason I've always been so fascinated with tennis, and especially college tennis, is that no sport offers such stark potential for mental meltdown. Players with exceptional physical skill engage in a bizarre war of wills that plays out in a barrage of calculated on-court nuances, sharp momentum swings and, in collegiate settings, over-the-top crowd behavior that borders on taunting.

In other words, it's awesome-and, in theory, it should all play to Cal's benefit, given that mental toughness and a lack of entitlement tend to be common threads among Golden Bear athletes, and Cal students in general.

Monitoring the earlier NCAA matches via the Internet, complete with live stats and distant, grainy video feeds, I vibed on the ninth-ranked Bears' clutch efforts on numerous courts and filled in the blanks, convinced that they were summoning their superior psychological conditioning to vanquish their opponents when it mattered most.

I may well have been right. Yet there I was on Tuesday tuned into title match live on ESPNU, watching the Bears unmistakably melt down before my eyes.

Certainly, Cal had an excuse-the debilitating calf injury to senior Claire Ilcinkas that essentially ended a heated competition for the doubles point and forced Augustus to shuffle the bottom half of her singles lineup. When Ilcinkas went down in the middle of a point in the 10th game of a tight No. 2 doubles match, it jolted a team that immediately and irrevocably lost its mojo.

Before I continue along these lines, a quick disclaimer: All glory to Duke, for Cal's opponent on this day was both worthy and resolute.

For all I know the third-ranked Blue Devils were the superior team, and they certainly deserved to capture their first-ever title against a school that had knocked them out of last year's tourney in the round of 16. Were I a Duke alum, I'd have taken great pride in the way these Devils seized the moment and asserted themselves against a reeling opponent.

With all of that said, it was disheartening to watch the Bears, after officially losing the doubles point, come out looking utterly discombobulated once the singles matches began.

Yeah, they'd need to win four of six singles matches-but that was exactly what they'd done in the semis after having lost the doubles point to No. 5 Notre Dame, winning first sets in every match but one en route to a 4-2 victory.

Sure, Ilcinkas is a strong player, and not having her at No. 4 singles was a blow. Further, having to move Bojana Bobusic from No. 5 to No. 4 and Stephany Chang from 6 to 5 negated their respective advantages by forcing them (in theory) to face higher-rated opponents.

Still, Cal had no reason to be overly pessimistic. Augustus had an experienced and talented senior, Marion Ravelojaona, to plug in at No. 6, and the new matchups on courts four through six were as likely to throw off the Devils' players as they were to mess with the Bears in those spots.

Besides, how many times have we seen a team rally when a key player goes down in a big game? You know the template by heart: Kareem stays back in L.A. with the severe ankle sprain, the rookie point guard jumps center in Philly and Magic happens.

It's tougher to pull off that collective covering for a fallen star in tennis, when you're out there on an island hearing opposing fans and players scream jubilantly at every point, creating a hyper-awareness of your and your teammates' every miscue. If Ilcinkas' injury planted seeds of doubt in the Bears' minds, the early Duke successes on all but the No. 2 singles court harvested them-and by the time the Cal players showed signs of snapping out of it, everyone but Marina Cossou was a set down and it was too little, too late.

What did the Bears need in their time of crisis? They needed Stephanie Kusano. A year ago, in the title match against UCLA, the Bears were all but done when the fiery senior put on a defiant display that, in the end, left her as one of my favorite Cal athletes of alltime.

Trailing 2-0 in the team score and facing a match point against UCLA's Elizabeth Lumpkin at No. 5 singles, Kusano, down 5-2 in the second set, let out an afternoon's worth of frustration when her opponent called a second serve out on match point, angrily challenging the decisive call and celebrating boisterously when it was overruled. Her demeanor so rattled Lumpkin, and energized Kusano, that the entire landscape underwent a perceptible shift, with the Cal player rallying to take the second set, 7-5.

With each victorious point, and sometimes on squandered ones, Kusano would pump her first and scream, "Come on!!!!" at the top of her lungs. It was a not-so-subtle signal to her teammates to keep battling, and an obvious statement to Lumpkin and the other Bruins that the Bears would never stop fighting. They didn't, either-Kusano's rise from the depths triggered Cal rallies on several surrounding courts.

In the end, Kusano's display of heart wasn't enough. The final score was 4-0 Bruins, and I argued at the time that it was highly deceptive. Kusano was still out there battling, and Cal might well have won the other three matches; UCLA's clincher came in a tightly contested three-setter at No. 1 singles.

This time around, 4-0 was 4-0, and the thrill of finishing ahead of all but one other team isn't quite as resonant. The good news is that, with four stalwarts returning, two highly regarded recruits coming in and an obvious grasp of this coaching thing, Augustus, a former Golden Bear star, will be well-positioned to take another swing next year, and for the foreseeable future.

Now it's time for her and her returning players to put aside their disappointment and get their minds right. In tennis, that's everything.


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