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Five Things: Conference play for UCLA women’s tennis

UCLA women’s tennis celebrates on the court. The Bruins won the Pac-12 regular-season title after taking down USC. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Jack Nelson

April 21, 2024 4:18 p.m.

This post was updated April 21 at 10:00 p.m.

No. 10 UCLA women’s tennis (17-4, 9-1 Pac-12) ended conference play on the mountain top, claiming the Pac-12 regular-season title for the second time outright and third overall. Senior staff writer Jack Nelson gives his five main takeaways from the Bruins’ scorching run entering the postseason.

Tested and True

(Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)
UCLA women’s tennis holds poses for a photo with the Pac-12 regular-season title trophy. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

The sport of tennis, though a brutal trial of self-doubt, is laden with poetry.

It was only fitting that the race to the regular-season title had a thrilling finish in the Pac-12’s waning hours.

UCLA was locked even with No. 9 California and No. 11 USC at 8-1 in conference play heading into championship Friday, and No. 3 Stanford wasn’t far behind at 7-1. All four programs were within striking distance of a share of the trophy or claiming it outright.

As time wound down before the afternoon’s pair of rivalry meetings, word spread that Stanford would not be making up its rainout against Colorado. The stakes were raised – with a victory over the Trojans and a Cardinal defeat of the Golden Bears, the Bruins could claim the championship in their name alone.

They had to accomplish the feat in the belly of the beast.

Host USC – starved of a Pac-12 title since 2015 – had its own ideas. It too could seal the deal with a win on its home courts and rub salt in the wound while doing so. The Trojans denied the Bruins the regular-season crown back in 2022 also at Marks Stadium.

But revenge was not a one-sided state of mind coming into Friday. Before conference play had even begun, then-No. 36 UCLA upset then-No. 8 USC with a 5-2 score.

Thanks to a symphony of endurance and a sprinkle of clutch performance – their definitive winning formula – the Bruins upended their rivals once again. The Stanford-Colorado rainout gifted them outright honors, but a championship is a championship.

UCLA outlasted the conference’s elite, and overcame demons of the past.

Blue-hot Bruins

Coach Stella Sampras Webster coaches her team as the players gather around her. (Brianna Carlson/Daily Bruin)
Coach Stella Sampras Webster coaches her team as the players gather around her. (Brianna Carlson/Daily Bruin)

Championship teams have a certain air about them – no matter the adversity, victory never seems to exceed their grasp.

Such an aura was palpable as the Bruins became one of the hottest teams in the country.

They rattled off 15 wins in 16 matches to close out the regular season, fighting back from a low of No. 36 all the way to their first top-10 ranking in over two years. On that journey, they accumulated five top-25 wins and outscored programs sitting outside that ranking 51-4.

Conference play then commenced with a fiery 4-0 start in which Washington State, Washington, Arizona State and Arizona mustered just one point combined against UCLA. Though a 4-0 sweep of the then-No. 25 Huskies impressed on the road, it was just business otherwise against the Pac-12’s lower tier.

Then came two days in hell.

Cal and Stanford were next on the docket, and with rain stripping away the rest day that usually separates the matchups, UCLA would have to play the then-No. 11 and then-No. 5 schools back-to-back, respectively.

In eking out a 4-3 victory, the Golden Bears dealt the Bruins an ultimatum – they could either lose to the Cardinal the next day and likely fall out of the race for good or win to keep pace with the pack.

UCLA might as well have taken the lead entirely when all was said and done.

With a 4-3 signature win of the campaign, the Bruins let their shattered eight-match win streak give way to a new one.

It would carry to the close.

Elise’s Excellence

(Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Junior Elise Wagle follows through after hitting the tennis ball. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Sophomore Tian Fangran and redshirt senior Sasha Vagramov have been synonymous with Bruin clinches since 2023.

Despite her veteran standing, junior Elise Wagle has rarely found herself in this conversation. She had never secured a big-time team victory coming into last week.

In just nine days, she’s become a savior.

The first test was especially daunting. Opposing the nation’s then-No. 2 doubles team in Pepperdine’s Janice Tjen and Savannah Broadus, Wagle and Tian fired on all cylinders en route to a 6-3 victory. By handing the Waves’ top tandem their only dual doubles loss of 2024, they assured an all-too-crucial doubles point in UCLA’s favor.

And in an all-too-familiar scene, the Bruins battled the Waves to the very end, eventually earning 3-3. Pepperdine’s Anna Campana and UCLA’s Wagle would dictate this meeting’s fate.

Having surrendered the first set, Wagle responded by taking a second-set tiebreaker before pulling away in the third – a three-set thriller that granted court-storming duties to her teammates.

Rejoicing scenes soon returned.

Again partnering with Tian to secure the doubles point, Wagle helped grant UCLA a key 1-0 advantage but forced herself into comeback mode by dropping her first singles set. She didn’t need a tiebreak to claim the second frame on this occasion and broke in the decisive game to hoist the trophy.

There’s little rhyme or reason to being in a clinching position. Correlation between clinchers is spurious, if anything.

But Wagle has been the triumphant constant.

Divorce of Destiny

(Brianna Carlson/Daily Bruin)
Junior Kimmi Hance (left) hits a backhand. Junior Elise Wagle (right) rises and swings to hit the tennis ball. (Brianna Carlson/Daily Bruin)

Divorces aren’t supposed to be easy.

Wagle and fellow junior Kimmi Hance were the defending Pac-12 Doubles Team of the Year coming into 2024 and ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation. But that history went by the wayside when coach Stella Sampras Webster chose to split them.

She saw an opportunity to maximize UCLA’s chances of winning the doubles point and believed spreading talent outweighed the risk of breaking up her most reliable duo.

This separation was a stroke of brilliance.

The Bruins won a remarkable 18 of 21 doubles points in the regular season. Without that proficiency, 4-3 wins over Pepperdine and Stanford – resume eye-poppers – wouldn’t exist.

As for the two new doubles teams spawned by Hance and Wagle – they became key contributors. The pairs of Wagle and Tian, as well as Hance and sophomore Anne-Christine Lutkemeyer, were a combined 4-0 against the Waves and the Cardinal.

Courts one and two were borderline automatic. The duos went a combined 14-2 in Pac-12 play and 20-4 overall, offering a steady hand when the going got tough.

Sampras Webster has always stressed doubles as a point of pride for her program. After all, she’s guided three NCAA doubles championship tandems in her 27-plus years at the helm.

Ever the great experimenter, she still knows best.

Culture of Champions

(Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Freshman Mia Jovic hugs her teammate. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Players have spread the message all year long. Their coach has resonated it.

There’s just something different about UCLA women’s tennis in 2024.

It doesn’t take an in-depth investigation to uncover why – positivity and support are heard in every rally cry, visible with every high five and overwhelming during every post-match mobbing. Camaraderie is the highest it’s been in years.

But the team mentality is far from happy-go-lucky. The Bruins are perpetually driven by a burning desire to win. It’s the kind of relentlessness that produces 15 victories in 16 matches at just the right time of year.

It’s not “we should win” in Westwood. It’s “we need to win.”

Perhaps it’s the perfect mix of personalities between veterans and newcomers. Maybe talent and execution have come to an ideal balance.

Regardless of the reason, their identity is clear – the Bruins are a team built on endurance, led by star power and distinguished by culture.

They’ve earned the No. 1 seed in the last-ever Pac-12 Tournament, and hosting duties for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament are virtually guaranteed.

It’s two further opportunities to translate culture into results.

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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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