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Nelson’s Noggin: Historic chance for UCLA women’s tennis thwarted by historically-hot foe

UCLA women’s tennis hugs on the court after falling to Tennessee. (Olivia Simons/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Jack Nelson

May 21, 2024 5:33 p.m.

This post was updated May 21 at 11:30 p.m.

Moving forward was unthinkable. What transpired moments earlier still shocked.

Trying to reason her way through it all, Kimmi Hance reiterated the same point.

“This sucks,” the junior said.

A season’s unceremonious end always carries sorrow, but sometimes there’s a little extra sting. It comes with that sinking feeling of opportunity slipping through your fingers.

As difficult as they are to swallow, such sentiments are what the Bruins will have to live with.

Once-bright lights turned dark on No. 8 seed UCLA women’s tennis’s season Friday night, as the team fell just short of the NCAA semifinals. It was mere points shy of taking that long-awaited next step – reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2015.

A brief sequence of unfavorable moments reversed that direction into a trip down heartbreak lane.

Sophomore Tian Fangran, triumphantly tried-and-true as defending NCAA singles champion and clincher of matches, surrendered two match points before digressing into a second-set tiebreaker. And in a decisive third, her opponent stole the rights to celebration.

Tennis is not prone to randomness. The sport’s consistency rarely grants gifts in the NCAA championships.

But the situation before the Bruins was historically opportune.

(Olivia Simons/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Coach Stella Sampras Webster stands with her hands behind her back. (Olivia Simons/Daily Bruin senior staff)


After outlasting No. 9 seed Texas for a spot in the Elite Eight, UCLA seemingly faced a challenge to end all challenges – the entire college tennis community foresaw it. The next opponent would surely be then-undefeated No. 1 seed Oklahoma State, scheduled to play No. 16 seed Tennessee the next day and heavily favored to advance.

The task would have been even more demanding than just battling the country’s consensus top team. The Greenwood Tennis Center in Stillwater, Oklahoma – the very home of the Cowgirls – served as the tournament’s final site. Those circumstances spell elimination for a vast majority of foes.

Then, Tennessee changed the game.

Entering the belly of the beast, the Lady Volunteers knocked off the Cowgirls, becoming the second-ever No. 16 seed to upend a No. 1 seed and the lowest to reach the NCAA quarterfinals since the adoption of the 64-team format. The Bruins were written off no longer. Just like that, they became the on-paper favorite.

There’s a running belief in college tennis circles that everyone is strong at the final site. But there’s an advantage to facing the lowest seed instead of the highest, no matter which way you slice it.

This was a historic twist of fortune.

Another truth, though, accompanies that undeniable fact, and UCLA found out the hard way. Events of the week prior were only an introduction to the draw’s upset queens.

Tennessee was able to dethrone Oklahoma State for a reason. With the pressure of perfection mounting, the former exploited matchups and benefitted from a singles retirement, pushing the latter past its limits.

Finding the right breaks at the right times, and led by the perfect catalyst in Sofia Cabezas – who clinched wins against the Cowgirls and the Bruins – the Lady Vols entrenched themselves as an all-time Cinderella. They excelled late in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, fighting to four singles wins on both occasions after dropping the doubles point.

Somehow, someway, Tennessee maintained that “it” factor. It epitomized the unavoidable reality undermining any national tournament – the best team doesn’t always win it all. Sometimes, those who heat up and stay hot lift the trophy.

(Olivia Simons/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Members of UCLA women’s tennis stand on the court. (Olivia Simons/Daily Bruin senior staff)

But UCLA can’t find solace in knowing it fell to the eventual NCAA champion. No. 13 seed Texas A&M curbed Tennessee’s magic, winning their semifinal matchup en route to becoming the second-lowest seed to ever claim the crown.

Notably, this year’s Final Four was unprecedented. Not a single top-four seed reached the stage as the sixth, seventh, 13th and 16th seeds instead constituted the field.

The Bruins failed to capitalize on historic opportunity but also collided with a team that was itself historic, one that accomplished something none ever had. Both of the above are true, and that makes this a complicated end to explain.

“What could have been” is a dangerous school of thought. UCLA can dwell in the theoretical, but that does little good. This loss may haunt the program regardless.

Coaches and athletes alike can go back and forth – was this more of a missed opportunity or a run-in with a team on fire?

There’s no use in trying to piece together a singular explanation.

Only acceptance will heal these wounds.

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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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