Tennis: The fight to repeat

It happened in September.

USC men's tennis coach Peter Smith grouped his defending champion squad together before its first practice of the 2009-2010 season and officially put their title run behind them.

The eighth-year coach pulled out a TV, a DVD player and a copy of the team's championship run on video and sat down to watch it with his team. After they finished watching, the always-affable Smith gave a brief address.

"'This will be the only time we watch this this season,' " USC No. 2 singles player Steve Johnsonrecalls Smith saying. " 'We have to move on.'

"And he was right," Johnson continues. "You can't live in the past. I think at this point in the year we’re all using last year's run as motivation, but we're not complacent about it at all."

As if the Trojans need any more motivation. Sunday, fifth-seeded USC will match up with fourth-seeded Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga. A win Sunday would propel the Trojans into Monday's semifinals, where they would take on the winner of the Virginia-UCLA quarterfinal.

The Buckeyes were the team the Trojans upset in the title game a year ago, so it understandably makes for a fairly big match this time around as USC is the underdog once again.


Sophomore Steve Johnson and senior Robert Farah are quite the qualified singles players but also make for one of the nation's top doubles pairings.

It's not that Smith wants his team to forget about its national championship, when USC upset the Buckeyes to complete a Cinderella-inspired run through the Round of 16 brackets. It's that Smith wants the reliving of the title run to occur on the courts, not in his players' minds.

"We just gotta use it as an inspiration," says ninth-ranked senior Robert Farah. "I'm just trying to relive that experience, which was very special for me, and that’s what has been driving me.

USC will rely heavily on Johnson and Farah in Sunday's match. Ranked third and ninth in the nation, respectively, Johnson and Farah share professional aspirations as the team's top two players. Fittingly, the pair have also worked extensively as doubles teammates.

Smith calls Farah the best player he has ever coached at the college level and says he expects Johnson to overtake that honor in the near future. In the meantime, though, he needs his No. 1 doubles pairing to top Ohio State's Sunday. The Trojans have lost only three times this season, and the Farah-Johnson team won only one out of three sets in those matches.

Essentially, they are important to the team's success. Very important.

"I feel like our chemistry has grown so much, even since last year," the sophomore Johnson says of his relationship, on- and off-court, with the senior Farah. "He knows what it takes. Rankings-wise, we feel like we can beat anybody if we play our best."

The description works for the rest of the squad as well, according to Smith. The former Fresno State and Pepperdine coach says his roster has been devoid of injuries for the first extended period of the season and liked what he saw in Saturday's 90-minute team practice.

"We are playing our best right at the right time," Smith said by phone from Athens as his players jumped to an ice bath. "We are very confident and our spirits are very high."

Just as they were a year ago.