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Nelson’s Noggin: Having found true star in Fangran Tian, UCLA women’s tennis can maximize future

Fangran Tian of UCLA women’s tennis celebrates after winning a point. The freshman will return to Westwood in 2024 as the reigning NCAA singles champion, with only one Bruin starter from 2023 not rejoining her. (Myka Fromm/Daily Bruin)

By Jack Nelson

May 31, 2023 10:42 p.m.

Coaches traverse the seas, make cross-country journeys and explore the humblest towns to the flashiest cities and everywhere in between, all in search of one thing.

They toil away looking for a needle in a haystack, a player who can revolutionize a program with the kind of talent that comes around only a couple of times in a generation.

The search is over for the Bruins, and they can toil no more – they’ve found the needle.

UCLA women’s tennis freshman Fangran Tian won the NCAA singles title Saturday, putting the finishing touch on what now stands as the greatest season for any freshman in program history. Her only trophy-lifting predecessor was then-junior Keri Phebus in 1995, but even her first year in Westwood doesn’t compare to the resume Tian assembled.

The question for the Bruins now becomes how they can best utilize the needle they were so fortunate to find.

If they want to maximize their future, they will have to build an arsenal behind their greatest weapon, and that future is fast approaching. If Tian’s sophomore campaign is anything like what she did this year, she’ll be as good as gone to the pros in no time at all.

With a 15-0 record in regular-season dual-match play at No. 1 singles, a Pac-12 Freshman/Newcomer of the Year award and the aforementioned national title, Tian was a dominant force this season from the very beginning to the very end.

After notching seven top-100 wins during the regular season, she rolled through six top-60 foes on a six-day thrash to the singles title. She’s now a virtual lock for ITA National Rookie of the Year and would be the first Bruin recipient of the honor since Ena Shibahara in 2017.

Few teams stumble upon a star like Tian, and even fewer are able to successfully build a winning team around one. With the right moves, coach Stella Sampras Webster and company are well positioned to do the latter.

(Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)
Members of UCLA women’s tennis huddle up before a match. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

UCLA’s entire top-court trio will return, with sophomores Kimmi Hance and Ava Catanzarite – the No. 2 and No. 3 singles options from this season, respectively – set to play alongside Tian once again. Both earned a bump up in the lineup from a year ago, with Hance formerly playing No. 4 singles and Catanzarite splitting time at the No. 3 and No. 4 spots.

As expected, both went through the trials and tribulations that come with more demanding roles.

Hance opened the regular season 4-6 in singles play, struggling before catching fire to win eight of her last 10. It was a different story for Catanzarite, who triumphed in her first four singles contests of the season prior to securing victory in just four of her last 14.

The No. 2 spot is Hance’s to lose. Her midseason response to a rough start is substantial evidence that she’s on the right path, and the coaching staff must continue to refine her singles game to ensure she can be reliable from the get-go in her junior season.

Sampras Webster may not be as convinced when it comes to Catanzarite, though. She may very well opt for rising junior Elise Wagle next season, the Bruins’ No. 4 singles player in 2023. Perhaps incoming freshman and blue-chip recruit Ahmani Guichard will blow the coach’s socks off to earn the spot.

But there has to be a reason why Sampras Webster stuck with Catanzarite through the struggle, and she should carry that belief forward. After UCLA’s top-three singles players from 2022 either departed or fell down the lineup in 2023, some season-to-season stability would greatly benefit this team.

On the back courts, UCLA will be working with some mix of rising senior Vanessa Ong and rising sophomore Anne-Christine Lutkemeyer in addition to Wagle and Guichard. Wagle – whose .687 dual-singles winning percentage was second to only Tian – would be a wise veteran pick for the No. 4 spot.

Despite her rising senior standing, Ong will be a major question mark. She’s been held out of play since March 25 because of injury, and with the severity unknown, her recovery may extend into next season.

Even if Ong is ready to go by the start of dual-match play, Lutkemeyer and Guichard are both healthier alternatives who may leave Ong – who has yet to turn in a 10-plus win season on the dual-singles front – watching from the spectator side of the fence.

As backward as it might sound, UCLA can translate historic individual success to the team. Pairing back-court changes with faith in its top options can spread the winning ways.

But again, time is of the essence. Shibahara – the last Bruin to depart early for the pro tour – didn’t stick around for her junior season despite a drop-off after her standout first year.

It will be the Tian show moving forward, but without the right moves behind the curtain, the spotlight will be all too lonely.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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