Eight months ago, in the decisive match of the NCAA semifinals,
junior Chanelle Van Nguyen’s muscles started cramping.
Her physical ailments snuffed a valiant four-game comeback, and she dropped the deciding set 6-4.
The match went to Texas A&M; 4-3, and the 2013 chapter of the UCLA women’s tennis program ended then and there.
“It hit me hard,” Van Nguyen said. “I don’t want to have that feeling again, so whenever I’m at practice and I’m tired, I use that to motivate me and get me through.”
Bowing out deep in the NCAA tournament has become a familiar narrative for senior Courtney Dolehide. In the 2012 UCLA season, UCLA was one game away from winning the NCAA championship. The season before, it was another exit in the NCAA semifinals.
But even though there are no consolation prizes for going far in the NCAA tournament, Dolehide said that the team has never really left each tournament empty-handed.
“Every year when you get that close, when you’re in the top four teams in the nation, it’s always heartbreaking to lose,” Dolehide said. “(But) it’s definitely helped us for this year though, because a lot of the younger girls had a taste of what it’s like to be that close to a national championship and lose, and it’s been awesome motivation for us this season.”
The road to not settling for anything but the ultimate prize begins with exorcising demons of past seasons.
“One of our weaknesses in the past has been on-court fitness,” Dolehide said. “That’s just something that we’ve learned from, and we are just really determined not to have that stop us in our matches.”
What that translates to is more running and more strength training, even if that means that resting on days leading up to matches is now a thing of the past.
But coach Stella Sampras Webster said in the long run, all the additional conditioning will benefit the team over the stretch of the three-month season.
“It’s more of the getting your legs and lungs working extremely hard, so we get really fit going into the season and going through this season so that our players won’t break down as the season goes on,” Sampras Webster said.
After several strong showings in individual tournaments in the fall, No. 5 UCLA will open the season with four Bruins placing in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association singles rankings.
Junior Robin Anderson tops the charts at No. 1 while Van Nguyen comes in ranked No. 9. Freshman Jennifer Brady, who has received praise from her teammates for her smooth transition to college competition is ranked No. 24. Sophomore Kyle McPhillips rounds off the quartet ranked No. 36.
According to Sampras Webster, the individual accolades of her players will back the team as they try stake a claim on an NCAA championship.
“We’re one of the best teams out there, and winning the NCAA championship would be something that I think we can do,” Sampras Webster said.
However, a new fitness regimen won’t be the only new thing for this season. The 2014 season will see the debut of a new competition format for women’s tennis.
In an effort to shorten tennis matches, singles competition sets will remain three-set affairs, but the third set will be played under tiebreaker format instead, while doubles matches will only last six sets instead of eight.
That novelty and air of uncertainty of this new format has been approached with apprehension by the Bruin athletes who have to adapt to the changes, including Anderson, who is also ranked No. 1 in doubles with her partner, Brady.
“I’m not a very huge fan of the new format,” Anderson said. “College tennis has never been this way before. Part of the fun of a doubles match is playing the eight games per set, and playing the full two out of three sets.
The players will get a chance to dip their toes in the waters as soon as today. UCLA faces UCSB in the season opener, as the Bruins begin their journey to win the big one.