Freshman pulls veteran move with clutch comeback

Freshman tennis player Nina Pantic plays during a Mar. 6 match against Oregon at the Los Angeles Tennis Center. Pantic was later dominant in the NCAA Tournament.

Freshman tennis player Nina Pantic plays during a Mar. 6 match against Oregon at the Los Angeles Tennis Center. Pantic was later dominant in the NCAA Tournament. Daily Bruin file photo

When the UCLA women’s tennis team was tied 3-3 against Arizona State on May 10, all eyes were on Court No. 4 at the Los Angeles Tennis Center, where UCLA freshman Nina Pantic and ASU senior Laila Abdala were battling in the deciding match of the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Trailing 6-4, 5-3 and just two false moves away from elimination at 30-30, Pantic decided that enough was enough.

“When I got down 5-3 (in the second set) I was like, “˜Oh no, not again. Another close match gone,’” Pantic said. “What happened was just a big change in (my) mentality. I knew that I could beat her from the beginning, so why not just do what I needed to do?”

Pantic could have pulled off a traditional, hard-nosed comeback by winning the second set 7-6 and eking out a 7-5 third-set victory that would have taken the Bruins to the round of 16 in College Station, Texas.

But that would have been too close.

With her team’s tournament hopes on her shoulders, Pantic closed out the match in stunning fashion. She won the final 10 games and dropped only two points in the third set en route to a 4-6, 7-5, 6-0 victory that earned the Bruins a trip to the Lone Star State.

“She found a way to play the best tennis since she’s been at UCLA, and to play it in that match was just huge,” coach Stella Sampras Webster said. “I think that was the first time she experienced a real college match where she was the deciding match, and she just thrived on that, which was great to see.”

Having never experienced the pressure of team sports before arriving at UCLA ““ Pantic played junior individual tournaments in lieu of high school tennis ““ her composure and poise seemed in doubt, but she eliminated those concerns the moment the third set started.

“Everyone expects the freshmen to be inexperienced,” Pantic said. “You think they’re going to crack first. I was playing a senior. I’m sure (people thought that could have been) a problem, but I’ve played since I was 5, I’ve played tournaments since I was 8 years old. I felt pretty confident that I could handle the situation.”

Because other Bruins’ early first-set leads and the overall slow pace of Pantic’s match, she did not expect her match to be so pivotal in the overall result.

“I was sure it would come down to … somebody else,” Pantic said. “I didn’t think I’d be the deciding match at all.”

However, UCLA junior Yasmin Schnack collapsed at the hands of ASU’s Kelcy McKenna, and Pantic was thrust into the utmost of pressure situations.

“(Pantic) said that she saw Yasmin going down, and she thought, “˜Oh my god, I count now. I need to step it up,’” sophomore Andrea Remynse said.

“And she did.”

Shots that had previously smacked against the net were blazing into Abdala’s court. Pantic’s accumulation of unforced errors turned into an assortment of deadly drop shots and well-placed lobs.

Abdala struggled to cope with Pantic’s newfound dominance, but was unable to do so and was eventually swept in the third set.

“She broke down a little bit,” Pantic said. “When we got to the third set I could see she was definitely freaking out, so I think that’s what helped me.”

Prior to the match, Pantic had been experiencing a lackluster year. Though touted as a five-star recruit, she only managed to post a mediocre 5-6 singles record.

Pantic was suspended by the NCAA for the first half of the season for accepting monetary winnings from the Florida Women’s Open, and the rust showed when she returned in mid-March.

“I hadn’t been playing well all season at all … compared to (the level) I was expected to play at,” Pantic said.

The Bruins would eventually fall 4-2 to the Miami Hurricanes in the round of 16, but for Pantic, her performance in the second round proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise difficult season.

“I basically had a chance to show that I could play,” Pantic said. “It didn’t make the whole season great, because we ended up losing … but at that moment it made the whole season really good.”

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