Jefferson P. Nolan
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There was no winner or loser of Ben Donovan’s match against UCLA’s Clay Thompson — the No. 1 tennis player in the nation.
A vague “unfinished” will be the only record of the contest at the Los Angeles Tennis Center on Saturday afternoon.
The match ended prematurely, as UCLA had already clinched a 4-0 victory over the Cal Poly men’s team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In his first year at Cal Poly, Donovan had a breakout season competing for the Mustangs on the No. 1 court — he earned a Big West Championship ring and accumulated a 17-10 overall record on his way to Big West Conference Freshman of the Year accolades.
On Saturday afternoon, under the blazing sun at the UCLA tennis arena, the crowd began to gather as the true freshman took an astonishing 3-0 lead in the third set against the best tennis player in the country.
“Going into it, I was nervous … especially when everyone was telling me that (Thompson) didn’t have many holes in his game,” Donovan said. “He is good at basically everything. I knew I had to hit a perfect spot every time.”
But from the beginning of the match, UCLA’s 22-year-old senior appeared mentally absent as Donovan repeatedly answered Thompson’s mammoth serves.
Every volley, every shot that the top-ranked athlete wailed cross-court was countered by Donovan.
Donovan’s domination even seemed to surprise himself.
“I mean, I played unreal,” Donovan said after the match. “I just stepped up, I guess. That was probably the fastest I’ve ever moved.”
Unusual for tennis players, Donovan’s backhand has always been his greatest weapon. A serve from Thompson would meet Donovan’s racket, and he’d answer with an equally lethal return swing.
“I hit a backhand winner off his serve in the third set, and I just knew that it was going my way,” Donovan said.
Pulling ahead quickly, Donovan won the first three games against Thompson and claimed the first set 6-4.
After Donovan dropped the second set 6-3, Thompson, known for voicing his emotions on the court, emitted a roar — showing the top collegiate tennis player was not going down without a fight. Donovan’s team was beginning to struggle during his third set, too.
The Mustangs’ Naveen Beasley was the first to lose 6-3, 6-1, and Matt Thomson was defeated soon after, 6-1, 6-3.
Unlike in professional tennis, each match won in the NCAA counts as a single point for the collective team. As soon as a team clinches the overall victory, the officials stop any ongoing matches.
Having claimed the doubles point earlier in the match, UCLA led 3-0 after Beasley and Thomson’s losses, and Cal Poly’s’ Jurgen De Jager was the only one who stood in the way of Donovan finishing his match.
In his third set, Donovan broke Thompson’s serve, won his own serve and broke Thompson once again. As the players swapped sides after the first game of the third set, the 6-foot-6 Thompson shook his head in disappointment.
“He’s got me,” Thompson said to the onlooking crowd. “He’s got me.”
But as De Jager began to fold under UCLA’s Mackenzie McDonald — ranked 35th in the nation — both Donovan and Thompson knew their match was going to be stopped.
“It was tough for me because part of me knew that the match was going to end,” Thompson said after the match. “I kind of felt bad for him. I’ve been in (Donovan’s) situation before, and he deserved that victory.”
After De Jager’s loss, Donovan and Thompson met at the net to shake hands.
“He was a good guy about it,” Donovan said. “At the net, he said, ‘Sorry you couldn’t finish the match. You definitely had me today.’
Cal Poly senior Marco Comuzzo battled on the court adjacent to Donovan. In his last match of his college career, he was also winning 3-2 in his third set against Marcos Giron, the second-highest ranked tennis player in collegiate tennis.
“Playing alongside Ben, it’s been amazing,” Comuzzo said. “He’s just had an unreal freshman year, and it has had such a massive influence on me playing next to him. I just wanted to stay out on the court as long as possible to give him a chance to win.”
Though the Cal Poly archives will depict a 4-0 loss to UCLA that concluded the Mustangs’ 2014 season, Donovan’s ghost match won’t be forgotten anytime soon, especially by the soon-to-turn pro Thompson.
“I told (Donovan) that if I could give him the ‘W’ I would, because he deserves it today,” Thompson said. “In the end, he had me. I was a little mentally weak, and I think he kind of broke me down. It’s just tough for him that he played such a great match and couldn’t come away with anything to prove it.”