Saturday, April 13

Five Things: Nonconference play for UCLA women’s tennis

UCLA women's tennis stands while on a break. The Bruins will have their first conference matchup against the Trojans on Friday. (Tszshan Huang/Daily Bruin)

This post was updated Feb. 29 at 11:08 p.m.

UCLA women’s tennis (4-3) commences Pac-12 play for the last time against USC (7-3) on Friday afternoon. Senior staff writer Jack Nelson gives his five main takeaways from the Bruins’ rollercoaster ride through nonconference play.

Tian’s Test

(Michael Gallagher/Daily Bruin)
Sophomore Tian Fangran swings to hit a backhand. (Michael Gallagher/Daily Bruin)

Winning an NCAA singles title changes everything.

Unknowns become household names, learners are turned into leaders and the burden of expectation quickly sets in.

Sophomore Tian Fangran, who became the second person in UCLA women’s tennis history to hoist the NCAA singles trophy – and first ever as a freshman – has had to endure all of the above, and her performance has paid the price.

The reigning ITA Rookie of the Year’s 16-2 dual-match singles record in 2023 translated to a 3-2 start this season. Despite playing No. 1 singles since she stepped on the court in the blue and gold, her Jan. 27 loss to Oklahoma State’s then-No. 13 Anastasiya Komar was her first loss in regular-season play.

Her herculean effort a year ago was something that no freshman could replicate, and which Tian herself is struggling to maintain. Now that coaches and players alike know her game, the element of surprise is no longer her advantage.

Tian will be challenged this season in ways she never was in 2023 – the nonconference slate made that clear. Her remarkable agility and hot groundstrokes keep her in the conversation as one of the best tennis athletes at the collegiate level, but if she’s to produce the results she once did, she’ll have to retain her unpredictability.

After all, the 2024 campaign is about more than what UCLA can achieve – it may very well be Tian’s final pitch to the WTA.

Disjointed Duo

(Tszshan Huang/Daily Bruin)
Juniors Elise Wagle and Kimmi Hance ball their fists as they stand together. (Tszshan Huang/Daily Bruin)

Kimmi Hance and Elise Wagle were a match made in heaven.

From the moment they first paired up competitively in the fall of 2022, the two then-sophomores had little trouble going toe-to-toe with some of the finest tandems in the game. Playing exclusively at the top court, they reached as high as No. 4 nationally on April 25, and with a 21-5 overall record, claimed Pac-12 Doubles Team of the Year honors.

But with little consideration for the past, coach Stella Sampras Webster opted to mix things up.

Hance and Wagle dropped their season-opening doubles contest against then-No. 6 Texas and were subsequently separated for the following four matches, finishing 2-2 and 1-2 alongside redshirt senior Sasha Vagramov and Tian, respectively.

Breaking apart the Bruins’ best doubles option amid the most rigorous portion of nonconference play raised some eyebrows.

Lost doubles points against Duke and Ohio State set the tone for what became UCLA’s first back-to-back shutout defeats in nearly 40 years, while the team went 1-3 during Hance and Wagle’s divorce.

Sampras Webster chalked up her decision to “spreading the wealth” – the kind of rationale that can yield success in low-stakes situations, but which runs considerable risk against ranked foes. Mixing up other doubles pairings is within the realm of reason, but splitting up one of the best duos in the country and hoping they gel with new counterparts pushes the limits of experimentation.

Now that Hance and Wagle are reunited as of last weekend, the Bruins will have to rely on them to be what they once were – minus the aid of recent reps against quality doubles teams.

Rain, rain go away

(Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
The fan sits on the courts to dry them out from the rain. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

Perhaps the most daunting nemesis for UCLA has been one that didn’t appear in its schedule but loomed over the Los Angeles Tennis Center anyway – precipitation.

The common atmospheric phenomenon directly interfered twice already, postponing a match against UC Santa Barbara and canceling a contest with then-No. 14 California. But its impact on team operations has gone beyond that.

Upon the Bruins’ return from their early February road trip to Columbus, Ohio, their practice courts were unusable for days due to an atmospheric river that made landfall before their plane even touched the tarmac. It was pure luck that, after losing to Ohio State on Feb. 4, UCLA had no matches until Feb. 23, allotting plenty of time for practice.

Weather issues are becoming a recurring trend – four matches were either delayed, postponed or canceled because of rain in 2023.

The LATC, as well as its backcourts, are not built for such conditions. There are no roofs, no drains and no raised or heated playing surfaces. Only brooms and sunlight are of use – a recipe for disaster as the rainy season intensifies with climate change.

It begs whether indoor facilities on UCLA’s campus, or in the surrounding Los Angeles area, are a worthy investment.

That may be a laughable proposition in Southern California, but the Bruins shouldn’t be the ones laughing.

Standings Slide

(Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
Sophomore Anne-Christine Lutkemeyer sits on the bench with her water. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

There was once a legitimate argument that the Bruins were widely underestimated.

A committee of collegiate tennis coaches picked UCLA as No. 16 in the nation to open 2024 dual-match play, following a 15-8 mark and Sweet 16 finish in 2023. But with the NCAA singles champion returning and the team losing just one starter, something about that ranking didn’t quite fit. These were the makings of a top-10 squad.

The past few weeks, though, have made the committee seem generous.

Since climbing as high as No. 12 nationally in the Jan. 24 edition of the ITA team rankings, the Bruins’ missteps have coalesced into a free fall. They dropped from No. 18 to No. 29 following a week of no matchplay from Feb. 14 to Feb. 20.

After dispatching two unranked mid-majors in Loyola Marymount and Cal State Fullerton, the plummet didn’t slow – it accelerated. UCLA is now the country’s 36th-ranked team, sandwiched between the uninspiring likes of Florida International and Denver.

Part of the Bruins’ rapid descent can be attributed to how the ITA’s computerized system differs from its coach-driven rankings. The computerized rankings, which go into use after the National Team Indoor Championships, are purely results-based, whereas coaches employ their perspective when critiquing each team’s body of work.

For computers, it’s a simple calculus – UCLA has a small sample size and few quality wins.

The 35 teams ranked above UCLA have played an average of 9.6 matches against its seven. The Bruins’ only ranked win was against the Longhorns, in which a pair of walkovers gave them a 3-0 advantage before singles play even began. Losses to then-No. 3 Oklahoma State, then-No. 17 Duke and then-No. 12 Ohio State aren’t resume killers, but they’re losses nonetheless.

Further ranked matchplay will dictate whether computer calculations are truly adding up.

Foggy Future

(Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
Freshman Bianca Fernandez reaches for the ball with her racket. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

Early-season showings can weave a telling tale, but this one has too many twists and turns to know the ending.

UCLA hit all the right notes, opening the season with a top-10 win and going the distance with the very team that went on to win National Indoors. Or maybe that was just lightning in a bottle.

Back-to-back bouts with squads standing outside the top 10 both ended in disaster. Consecutive shutouts asked whether the Bruins’ one quality win was simply a product of the two walkovers they benefited from.

A pair of home victories over mediocre competition last weekend put UCLA back in the win column and above .500, but neither says anything substantial about what it can accomplish when pitted against the Pac-12 on a regular basis.

There’s no lack of talent on this team – and no lack of experience either. The nonconference play didn’t alter that reality.

Whether the Bruins execute on both, one or neither of those fronts will determine if last year’s Sweet 16 berth was merely a stepping stone or the peak of their potential.

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.

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