Oh, Brother

Half a World Away From Their Native New Zealand, the McLachlan Brothers Still Stick Together as Teammates

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Karen Ling/Photo


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There isn't much sun left in the sky as Ben and Riki McLachlan slouch in the bleachers of the Channing tennis courts. It's after 5 p.m. and nearing sunset in Berkeley, but halfway across the globe in the little lakefront town of Queenstown, New Zealand, it's already two in the afternoon on the following day.

Like most of the members of Cal men's tennis team, the McLachlan brothers aren't from the United States. They aren't even from this hemisphere. Queenstown is their home, a quiet anchor in their otherwise hectic lives.

For most, the thought of picking up one's life and moving it halfway across the world is unfathomable.

But for freshman Ben and sophomore Riki McLachlan, the transition has been easy; after all, who better to share this particular undertaking with than your own brother?

The brothers are quiet, and it's tempting to write them off as shy. They are two nearly identical introverts in the midst of a fast-paced sport, a boisterous team, a bustling city.

Yet a first impression of them is not accurate. Beneath the awkward silences are two quietly determined guys who share everything, from a last name to a tennis team to a common goal to turn pro.

Ben and Riki never once glance toward the San Francisco skyline silhouetted against the last stubborn rays of light. Instead, they're both intently watching the activity on the courts.

They glance over at a young boy running drills with his instructor two courts over and laugh.

"He just isn't having any," Riki says. "The coach is trying to make him jump over the cones and he won't."

They don't need to say anything to each other aloud, though; simply by watching the same scene they both have the same reaction.

The brothers chuckle again. They find the whole scenario funny, just as they seem to find almost anything funny. Apparently a sense of humor is simply one more thing they share.

They shift their focus toward an older man laboriously practicing his serve. They exchange a glance, a few indecipherable words and another signature laugh. They're in their own world.

"He needs to work on his serve," Riki says. "He's throwing the ball too high in the air. And I have no idea what he's doing with his arm."

Tennis - apart from classes, it's all the brothers think about. After all, a passion for the sport is the reason they're so close to begin with.

"From the time we were seven or so, we just started playing a bunch of different sports," Ben says.

Thirteen months the junior, Ben would see Riki take up a sport, from basketball to rugby to tennis. Ben would attend practices and games, and pretty soon he would sign up too.

"We always did everything together, Riki says. "We were like twins in that way. We were always in the same age group and always on the same teams."

Together, the two siblings stuck with tennis as they got older, sharing a coach and even slots in the four Junior Grand Slams and the ITF Junior world rankings. In fact, they owe their careers at Cal to that shared coach back home, Lan Bale, a former assistant coach for the Bears.

"(Bale) continually told us that college tennis was a great idea," Riki says, "Berkeley always stood out in my mind because he would always talk about it."

For Ben, the reason for choosing Berkeley was even simpler: he just wanted to be at the same school as his older brother. The adjustment from a "really small town" down under to the Bay Area wasn't that hard for him, he says, because he already knew what to expect after watching Riki.

Still, the academics took some getting used to for a freshman who's currently shopping around for majors,.

"At the start, I had no idea what I was doing," Ben says with a self-deprecating smile. "I was really struggling, and I texted Riki every day asking for advice. He knows what he's doing. He helped me out a lot."

It seems that for his entire life, Ben has been looking up to Riki. The older brother takes the driver's seat and answers all the questions, while Ben is content to sit passenger and listen to his brother's practical, self-assured answers. Ben's along for the ride his older brother has already mapped out, and both brothers like it just fine that way.

In fact, the joke around the team is that Riki is 30 years old - a mature adult who makes the best decisions.

"He's ..." There's a pause as Ben looks toward Riki, almost asking him to fill in the blank himself. Finally Ben throws out, "wise. Say how wise Riki is."

But as close as the two are, they don't play doubles together. The simple reason is that with so many other combinations, the team doesn't need that tandem.

But maybe that's not the full explanation. The two exchange a look and a signature quiet laugh. "We used to play doubles when we were younger," Riki begins, "but we would fight."

They're quick to assert that they haven't fought since Ben arrived at Cal. Instead, they point out how they cheer each other on so loudly during matches that they lose their voices the next day. They point out how they pat each other on the back after doing well on midterms. They point out how often they laugh at each other's jokes.

The sun is rapidly fading. The little boy and his coach, as well as the older man, have long since left.

Ben and Riki head down the concrete steps and branch off in different directions: Riki south to the apartment he shares with a few teammates, Ben east to his Unit 3 dorm room.

It doesn't matter that these two parted ways without so much as a goodbye. They'll see each other again soon enough.

After all, they're brothers.

Tags: CAL MEN'S TENNIS, PETER WRIGHT, RIKI MCLACHLAN, BEN MCLACHLAN


Annie Gerlach covers men's tennis. Contact her at [email protected]



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