Dec. 17, 1999
With a talented group of experienced veterans united with the addition of one of the nation's top recruiting classes, the 2000 UCLA women's tennis team has the potential to be one of the most successful Bruin squads ever assembled.
"This is the best team we've had since I've been the head coach," says fourth-year coach Stella Sampras. "We have the talent and the players capable of winning a national championship. It's a matter of staying healthy and having players remain focused throughout the year." One person who knows a thing or two about focus is former Bruin head coach Bill Zaima, who led his 1981 squad to the national championship. Zaima, who compiled a 245-90 record for the Bruins in 10 seasons (1986-96), returns to UCLA in 1999 on a volunteer assistant basis.
"Bill adds so much to this team," explains Sampras. "He's someone who has been in a final four and won a national championship, and that experience will help us tremendously. We're very excited to have him back."
UCLA debuted at No. 6 in the preseason ITA rankings and features one of the deepest squads in America, with three players capable of filling the No. 1 position. Seniors Annica Cooper and Amanda Basica, along with freshman Sara Walker, give UCLA a solid top-3 singles lineup. Add former No. 1 Cristina Popescu, who has missed the last seven months due to injury, to the mix and the top of UCLA's lineup is as potent as any team in the country.
"I think what's so exciting about this team is that we have such strong players at the top of our lineup who can all play No. 1 and win," says Sampras. "When you factor in our depth with players like Elizabeth Schmidt and Abigail Spears, we should be tough to beat."
Leading the way for UCLA in terms of experience and leadership will be All-American co-captains Basica and Cooper. Despite being riddled with injuries since arriving from the University of Florida back in 1997, Basica won 26 matches for the Bruins last season playing mostly in the No. 2 slot. Though she missed most of the fall due to injury, she is expected to be at full-strength by the start of spring action. Ranked No. 29 in the preseason rankings, Basica should contend for a Pac-10 and possible NCAA singles title. Cooper, the 1998 Pac-10 Player of the Year after winning the conference singles title in Ojai, won a team-best 29 matches last season, going 12-5 at the No. 1 position. She debuts at No. 9 in the preseason ITA rankings and will likely team with Basica to form UCLA's No. 1 doubles tandem. Rounding out the top-3 is Walker, a two-time Texas state champion at Franklin High School in El Paso. She was UCLA's top performer in fall action after going 7-3 and reaching the consolation finals at the Riviera All-American.
Ranked No. 14 in the preseason ITA rankings, a healthy Popescu could be the Bruins' key to a national championship. Though she has been sidelined since tearing her patella tendon against USC in March of last year, Popescu figures to return to the lineup and be ready for action by early February. She was 7-2 at the No. 1 position before suffering her injury last season. Returnees Schmidt and Petya Marinova, along with Spears are the frontrunners to round out UCLA's extremely deep lineup. A three-year starter, Schmidt brings a wealth of experience to the team, as she has played as high as No. 2 singles, seeing most of her action in the No. 4 slot in 1999. Marinova, a former Canadian Junior National Champion, enjoyed a solid freshman campaign last season, posting a 17-12 overall record. She will team with Walker to form one of UCLA's top doubles teams. Spears, who joins Walker as the Bruins' other top freshman recruit, finished her junior career as the No. 8 ranked player in the country in '99. She will also be one of the Bruins' top doubles players, teaming with Schmidt. Another player that could make an immediate impact is Zana Zlebnik, a junior transfer from Texas Tech. Zlebnik posted a 7-15 record at the No. 1 position for the Red Raiders last season and will be eligible in January.
Players expected to add depth to this year's roster include junior Jennifer Donahue, sophomore Catherine Hawley, and freshman Michelle Stiefel. Playing in the highly competitive Pac-10 Conference, UCLA's schedule is annually one of the toughest in the country. In addition, the Bruins face several ranked non-conference opponents, including No. 5 Georgia, No. 8 Pepperdine, No. 9 Texas and No. 23 Fresno State. The Bruins will also be tested early when they travel to the National Team Indoors in Madison, Wisc. in mid-February.
"The National Team Indoors will give us a good indication of where we are on a national level," says Sampras. "It will give our freshmen a taste of what it will be like at NCAAs come May."
When the NCAAs do roll around in May, UCLA will have the advantage of playing near its own backyard, as Pepperdine has been selected to host the 2000 Championships.
"It's going to be very nice to be just down the street at a place where we're used to the weather and the environment," says Sampras. "It's not as tough to adjust when you don't have to go across the country. It will also be nice having some support there, and I expect it to be a great experience."
"Our focus of this year is that we want to peak and be at our best in May," says Sampras. "I think we have the potential to win a lot of matches, but it's important that our players keep developing and stay focused."