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Fall to Tennessee ends UCLA women’s tennis’ NCAA title bid

Sophomore Tian Fangran walks on the court. No. 32 Tian fell to No. 14 Sofia Cabezas in singles play Friday. (Olivia Simons/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Women’s Tennis


No. 8 seed UCLA3
No. 16 seed Tennessee4

By Jack Nelson

May 18, 2024 1:19 a.m.

This post was updated May 19 at 10:41 p.m.

STILLWATER, Okla. – Chaos defies all predictability. It’s ever-unpredictable by definition, twisting and turning in its course.

On the maddest of days in May, it was inevitable. All higher-seeded teams fell to lower counterparts – upset after upset in one fell swoop.

With the kind of ending only the day’s chaos could conceive, the Bruins were the final victim.

In a four-hour-plus barnburner that nearly cracked midnight, No. 8 seed UCLA women’s tennis (21-6, 9-1 Pac-12) suffered a 4-3 upset by No. 16 seed Tennessee (22-7, 9-4 SEC) in the NCAA quarterfinals Friday night at the Greenwood Tennis Center. The Bruins stood on the brink of their first national semifinal since 2015 but instead watched their season crumble before their own eyes.

“A point here or there, we would be celebrating, but it didn’t happen today,” said coach Stella Sampras Webster. “I thought we were on our way to the Final Four, but it doesn’t always go that way until you get that last point.”

The whiplash of three singles results in less than a minute left the Bruins and Lady Volunteers knotted at 3-3. Court one transformed into center stage, and standing there with the match on her racket was the defending NCAA singles champion – UCLA’s crown jewel.

No. 32 sophomore Tian Fangran stepped to the baseline, bouncing the ball as silence settled in. The sun-soaked arena, host to the louder contests of hours past, gave way to the stillness of an Oklahoma evening.

Tian follows through on a serve. (Courtesy of Oklahoma State Athletics)

Everyone in the building recognized the stakes.

The scoreboards on each end of the court read 6-4, 6-5, 40-30 – two chances for one winning stroke to send the Bruins riding high into Saturday. And there was nobody their coach would rather have in that scenario.

“She’s won so much for us, and of course she’s a champion to me – she’s been a rock,” Sampras Webster said.

But opposing Tian was a killer in her own regard. A week prior, Tennessee’s No. 14 Sofia Cabezas sunk the dagger into undefeated No. 1 seed Oklahoma State, clinching one of the largest upsets in NCAA tournament history. 

Now on the exact same court where her magic once flowed, she cast another spell.

Fending off both match points and forcing a second-set tiebreak, Cabezas emerged with a 7-4 showing to send an already-late match further into the night. Multiple chances for UCLA to advance became simply what could have been.

The third frame was an exercise in serving futility. Each of the first five games resulted in a break, as the battle to be hero yielded a back-and-forth affair. Struggling to hold but succeeding to break, Tian fed off of her teammates on the neighboring court – the kind of support that they’ve provided all year.

“There’s nothing like hearing a Tian scream, it’s terrifying,” said junior Kimmi Hance. “But the motivation that I know she’s going to win gives me more motivation to keep fighting.”

Breaks often pave the road to victory, but this was a matter of who could hold first.

That would be Cabezas.

Up 3-2, the Lady Vol held for the defining difference. It was mere games later when she backpedaled behind the baseline, watched a lob land long, and threw her arms up in relief before collapsing to the ground. 

Members of Tennessee women’s tennis surround Cabezas to celebrate after she clinches the win. (Courtesy of Oklahoma State Athletics)

On the opposite end stood Tian, hand on her hip and bent over in exhaustion. Her teammates jogged toward her with an eager embrace, paying little attention to the scene on the other side of the net.

“She has so much love and care for everybody, and just being able to witness her devotion to each and every person on the team has been absolutely amazing,” said sophomore Anne-Christine Lutkemeyer.

The opportunity ahead of the Bruins was golden, as if the college tennis gods had gazed upon them with grace.

They were spared from a matchup with the Cowgirls on their own stomping grounds, and instead tasked with defeating the No. 16 seed after upending the No. 9 seed in the super regionals. After winning the doubles point and claiming four of six first singles sets Friday, the Bruins just had to finish the job.

But chaos reared its ugly head. Tennessee was its latest agent.

“It’s going to be a tough summer, a long summer, just to think about it,” Sampras Webster said.

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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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