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The advocacy and legacy of Stella Sampras Webster

Coach Stella Sampras Webster walks on the tennis court. Sampras Webster is the longest-tenured female coach at UCLA. (Courtesy of Jesus Ramirez)

By Olivia Simons

Jan. 18, 2024 12:37 a.m.

Stella Sampras Webster first became a Bruin in 1987.

She’s made her presence known at UCLA ever since.

Sampras Webster took over as the head coach of UCLA women’s tennis in 1997 after spending four years on the team and several years as assistant coach. Twenty-eight years with the top job later, Sampras Webster has amassed over 500 wins, a pair of NCAA titles and a legion of other accolades in her time as the longest-tenured female coach at UCLA.

“It’s just been an amazing, amazing job,” Sampras Webster said. “I pinch myself that I’m still here and it’s been 30 years, because it doesn’t seem like it’s been 30 years. It seems like every year is just like a new year that I look forward to working. I feel very, very honored.”

Sampras Webster started as a player for the Bruins in just the seventh year of women’s tennis as an NCAA sport. She spent a season in the professional circuits then took on the position of assistant coach before replacing former head coach Bill Zaima at age 27. As the second-longest tenured coach at the school behind UCLA men’s tennis coach Billy Martin, Sampras Webster has become a well-known presence in the UCLA Athletics world.

“Stella’s going to lead by example,” said associate head coach Rance Brown. “She’s not a very vocal person, but I think her walking through the athletic department, … the respect she has on campus and off campus throughout the tennis world – it’s bar none.”

(Courtesy of Eric Hurd)
Sampras Webster talks to her players in a huddle. (Courtesy of Eric Hurd)

Sampras Webster said that over the years, the landscape of collegiate women’s tennis has grown tremendously in terms of both resources and recognition. Beyond becoming an NCAA-sponsored sport, opportunities have grown in terms of resources – including name, image and likeness opportunities, the transfer portal, and more.

Before these opportunities arose, however, Sampras Webster had to advocate for basic amenities for her team, such as using the same practice facilities as the men’s team. The women’s tennis team used to practice at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, a far cry from the Olympics-ready stadium that is the Los Angeles Tennis Center, prompting Sampras Webster to advocate for her team to be able to play at the LATC.

Redshirt senior Sasha Vagramov said she is grateful for her coach’s activism.

“Stella has done an incredible job pushing for equality in this program,” Vagramov said. “Without her, things might look a lot different today. So I’m just super grateful that she had the courage to step up for the women in this program.”

Including Sampras Webster, UCLA Athletics staffs eight female coaches across 21 teams, all of whom coach exclusively women’s teams.

Former UCLA women’s golf coach Jackie Tobian-Steinmann, who served as head coach from 1977-1999, used to organize dinners for the female coaches at UCLA, and Sampras Webster said she valued having the opportunity to get to know those women. She added that she has seen an increase in the number of women in coaching positions at UCLA since the start of her tenure.

“We were all able to enjoy just getting to know each other, but also learn from each other, so that was super cool,” Sampras Webster said. “It’s great to see. There’s a lot more women to be able to get to know and see how they’re doing. I think it’s great for women, especially here at UCLA, to have so many women head coaches.”

Across the country, however, men continue to far outnumber women in collegiate coaching staff positions, and Title IX – which serves to eliminate gender discrimination in collegiate sports – does not include any guidelines regarding gender equity among coaches. As of 2020, just 30.4% of NCAA women’s tennis teams have women as head coaches.

Brown said he emphasized to the team the importance of having a woman as a head coach, particularly one as talented as Sampras Webster.

“I spoke to the team the other day and told them how lucky they were to have a woman leading them,” Brown said. “And I think it’s important. I think these young ladies need to see other women in those positions. I think she (Sampras Webster) understands her responsibility as a woman coach.”

In 28 years at the helm of the program, Sampras Webster has achieved a .730 winning percentage, and her teams have ended their seasons ranked in the top five nationally 15 times.

Brown said Sampras Webster sets athletes up for success through the environment she cultivates.

“She just creates a standard and a culture,” Brown said. “I think that is so healthy for young women to succeed. … I think she takes a lot of pride in how they are on and off the court.”

Vagramov, who decided to take her extra year of eligibility in order to fully prepare to enter the professional circuits this summer, said the Bruins’ coaching staff made a significant impact on her choice to return to Westwood. She added that she values Sampras Webster’s guidance and mentorship and sees how much Sampras Webster cares for the athletes she coaches.

Having a woman as a coach is particularly valuable for Vagramov, who said she appreciates being able to relate more to her coach after being primarily coached by men and seeing how male-dominated the pro circuit is.

“Stella has been an amazing role model for all of us,” Vagramov said. “She’s an incredible trailblazer, not only for the tennis program, but for women’s sports in college generally. So I feel really honored to have been led by her over these years.”

With the changing landscape of both college tennis and women in collegiate athletics over the past several decades, Sampras Webster said she continues to enjoy her job and the new adventures to come.

“I wouldn’t trade my job for the world,” Sampras Webster said. “I love doing it. I’m going to keep doing it until it’s not fun anymore. I really, really enjoy it.”

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Olivia Simons | Quad editor
Simons is the 2023-2024 Quad editor. She was previously the 2022-2023 managing editor, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's tennis, men's tennis, swim and dive and rowing beats and a reporter on the baseball and women's tennis beats. She is also a fourth-year student from Oakland, California.
Simons is the 2023-2024 Quad editor. She was previously the 2022-2023 managing editor, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's tennis, men's tennis, swim and dive and rowing beats and a reporter on the baseball and women's tennis beats. She is also a fourth-year student from Oakland, California.
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