Raising a Racket
Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM
This past May, the women’s tennis team won its second and UCLA’s 111th NCAA national championship in a nail-biting, 4-3 slugfest. The Bruins were young — their top six players included three juniors, two sophomores and a freshman — but they knew all along they were the best team in the country.
Kyle McPhillips — the No. 3 singles player for the UCLA women’s tennis team — was on the verge of closing out her match against the University of North Carolina’s Caroline Price when she noticed something a bit unnerving: All the other players from both teams were crowding around their court to watch.
That could only mean one thing, McPhillips realized — the dual match had been tied, 3-3. (In collegiate tennis, a team earns one point when it wins two out of three doubles matches, and one point for every singles victory; the first school to reach four points wins.) When McPhillips began her match, UCLA had been up 3-2, but the Tar Heels soon tied the score — which meant that the fate of this NCAA National Championship final between fifth-seeded UCLA and seventh-seeded North Carolina depended solely on the result of the match between McPhillips and Price.
The two players had each won a set, and McPhillips was ahead, 5-3, in the third set. “I didn’t realize it was going to be on me, so at 5-3 in the third set, I paused a second and said, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ ” she says. “Every ounce of my thoughts, every brain cell I had, went to winning the next point.”
Head Coach Stella Sampras Webster ’91 saw that the young Bruin was in a zone, so her advice to McPhillips was simple. “She told me to breathe, and she told me where to serve. That was all I could handle, and it was perfect. It was absolutely perfect,” McPhillips says, laughing. With her 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over Price, the Bruins earned their second national title (the first, in 2008, was also under Sampras Webster) and UCLA’s 111th national championship overall.
A Good Start
May 20 dawned bright and hot at the University of Georgia’s Dan Magill Tennis Complex, where the Bruins started fast with victories by their stellar doubles teams. Junior Robin Anderson and freshman Jennifer Brady (ranked the No. 1 doubles team in the nation) and sophomores McPhillips and Catherine Harrison beat their opponents to earn the Bruins’ first point, saving their third doubles team (senior Courtney Dolehide and junior Chanelle Van Nguyen) the trouble of finishing their match. UCLA’s doubles teams, in fact, didn’t lose a point all year and finished the season with an unblemished 29-0 record.
In singles play, UCLA’s No. 2-ranked Anderson handily defeated UNC’s No. 1-ranked Jamie Loeb, 6-2, 6-2, to earn the Bruins’ second point. Anderson admitted to a case of nerves beforehand, though. “Jamie was the only person in college tennis that I hadn’t already had a win over,” she says. “So when I played her in the NCAAs, I went into the match not really confident that I was going to win. I just went out and played fearlessly, and I ended up playing really well.”
For her efforts, Anderson was named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and the Honda Sports Award winner for Women’s Tennis, awarded every year by the Collegiate Women Sports Awards to the top women athletes in 12 NCAA-sanctioned sports.
Brady took a 23-match winning streak into the NCAA final before falling to UNC’s Hayley Carter in singles play. She and Anderson, however, had already gotten the Bruins off to a good start by helping to win the doubles point. Like many of her teammates, Brady is a veteran of the junior circuit and played in the Junior French Open, Junior Wimbledon and the Junior U.S. Open. Despite those experiences, she chose to attend UCLA rather than enter the pro ranks.
“The transition from juniors to college was definitely very strange,” Brady admits. “It’s not all about you anymore. You’re playing for the school, for the team, for the coaches. You’re playing for pretty much everyone here at UCLA, not just yourself. You have something bigger to play for, and it inspires us.”
Grinding It Out
Chanelle Van Nguyen put the Bruins ahead, 3-2, with her victory over Ashley Dai of UNC. It was a hard-fought match that went to three sets (4-6, 6-3, 6-3). “In doubles, I wasn’t playing very well because I was so nervous. And then in singles, I was really nervous, so I lost the first set. I was kind of freaking out,” Van Nguyen says.
“But then in the second set, my game plan was to stay in the point and just make her miss. Last year, I lost in the semis and it was not a good feeling at all. I didn’t want to have that feeling again of losing in the finals. I told myself, ‘I’ve worked hard all year and made all these sacrifices. I’m not going to lose this match!’ ”
The team also wanted to win the title for its three seniors: Dolehide, Morgan Thomas and team manager Megan Lester. “They were really pumped,” Van Nguyen says. “From the beginning, Courtney always motivated us, even if we had bad practices. She’d say, ‘Work hard for this national championship.’ It was good to finally say that we won it. It was her last year, so that made it even more special for her.”
Junior Kaitlin Ray’s match against UNC’s Tessa Lyons was another gut-wrenching three-setter, which Ray ultimately lost. But typical of the closeness of this team, Ray quickly brushed aside her own disappointment to cheer on her teammate, McPhillips.
“You have to stop beating yourself up and use that energy to cheer her on. Having someone else to put your energy into helps,” Ray says. “At that point, it was just about getting Kyle through that. She was up 5-3 at the time, and Kyle does amazingly well in pressure situations. All of us had so much trust in her.”
Winning the championship has really motivated the team, Ray adds. “I know that this team will not view it as an opportunity to be satisfied or complacent. Everybody is going to be gunning for us, and there are some very high-quality teams that we’re going to have to beat next year. We’ll use it to motivate us to get better and to improve. And we’re returning almost everyone and adding some fantastic freshmen, so we’re just as talented, if not more so. We’re going to put ourselves in a position next year to win it.”
The Stars Were Aligned
After 18 seasons as UCLA’s head coach, Sampras Webster and her staff — Associate Head Coach Rance Brown and Volunteer Assistant Coach Laura Gordon ’06 — know you can have the best team and still not win a national championship.
“Every morning I’d wake up and pray that everyone was healthy. So many little things could happen — a player having a bad day or getting injured. So everything really lined up for us,” Sampras Webster says. “I feel that’s what it takes sometimes to win a national championship, because it’s so hard.”
Still, the Bruins never had any doubt about their chances. “It didn’t matter what our seed was — we knew we were the best team in the country,” the coach says. “We never really had to talk about it. It was just known, by the coaching staff, by the players. We just knew.”