A pair of national heavyweights will meet on the tennis court tomorrow afternoon when No. 3 Georgia faces defending national champion and fifth-ranked Vanderbilt.
The build up between the two squads is full of interesting facts. Georgia enters having won eight straight contests including a 4-2 win over No. 23 Kentucky on Thursday while Vanderbilt took down rival Tennessee 7-0.
The two teams have combined for the last two SEC tournament championships, seven ranked singles players (four for UGA, three for Vanderbilt) and four ranked doubles pairs.
The top match of the contest will focus on Georgia's Ellen Perez and Vanderbilt's Sydney Campbell. A sophomore from Shellharbour, Australia, Perez is a perfect 6-0 in conference play and 9-1 overall at the No. 1 spot in the Bulldogs’ lineup. Her impressive play has led her to the No. 7 national ranking.
Vanderbilt counters with its junior from Franklin, Tenn., who set the Vanderbilt season record for singles victories with 36 last season. Campbell is currently ranked 25th in the nation and has four conference wins thus far.
The battle between the two head coaches will also be one to watch.
Head coaches Jeff Wallace and Geoff Macdonald are two of only seven active head coaches in Division-1 women’s tennis with 500 career wins. Wallace is the winningest active head coach in NCAA women’s tennis having won 668 matches with way while Macdonald, Mike Patrick (Tennessee), Keith Puryear (Navy), Rick McClure (Loyola Maryland) Carl Neufeld (SMU) and Dennis Taylor (UT Martin) fill out the club.
Wallace’s path to coaching greatness came unexpectedly. After playing for the Bulldogs’ men’s team and winning the 1984 SEC singles title at the No. 6 spot, Wallace was hired to lead the women’s program. In his first year as coach of the Bulldogs, Wallace led a struggling team to a 20-9 mark and landed a spot in the final Volvo Tennis/ITCA Top 25 poll. In 1987, just two years removed from a losing record, Georgia advanced to the national championship match.
In his 31 seasons with the Bulldogs, Wallace has won two NCAA championships, three USTA/ITA National Team Indoor titles, eight SEC crowns and six SEC tournament titles. He has been honored four times each as national and conference coach of the year.
Macdonald’s path has seen a few more stops on his coaching journey. After winning the ACC singles title in 1981 as a senior at Virginia and playing professionally for three years, he spent time as the head coach at LSU and Duke before taking over the Vanderbilt program.
Prior to Macdonald’s arrival at Vanderbilt, the women’s tennis program had never been ranked above 28th in the country. With Macdonald at the helm, the Commodores have finished no lower than No. 19 in 17 of the past 20 years, including a school record No. 1 ranking following 2015 national championship.
Last season Georgia and Vanderbilt split their two matches with the Bulldogs taking the regular season contest 5-2 before the Commodores won a tight 4-3 decision in the SEC tournament final.
Everyone has a lucky number.
Ask UCLA women’s head tennis coach Stella Sampras-Webster what hers is, and you’d likely hear the number 20.
“I am so blessed to have this job,” said Sampras-Webster of her 20 years as the Bruins’ head coach. “But I can’t take credit for everything.”
Under her tutelage, it seems that success is coming full circle. The Bruins won their first NCAA team championship in 2008, coming exactly two decades after Sampras teamed up with partner Allyson Cooper as a freshman to win the school’s maiden NCAA doubles title in 1988.
“It’s definitely been a team effort, and I’ve learned a lot as well,” says Sampras-Webster, who has now coached the Bruins to two individual NCAA doubles titles and two team national championships, the most recent team title coming in 2014.
[caption id="attachment_719" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Sampras-Webster in her UCLA playing days. (Credit: UCLA Athletics)[/caption]
Learning starts from her California roots. The 46-year-old mother of twin girls firmly believes that her tight-knit family has made a lasting impact on her professional and personal development, as she’s been in or near Westwood her whole life. When she was growing up, Sampras-Webster’s father Sam worked two mechanical engineering jobs to support her mother Georgia and his four children.
“We were taught at a young age what hard work is,” says Sampras-Webster. “There are no shortcuts. You’ve got to put in the work and make your own luck.”
It’s a life lesson that has benefitted all of the Sampras siblings, including her kid brother and and 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras, who has shown tremendous support both on and off the court for his sister.
“It’s really neat to have him stop by,” says Sampras-Webster about her legendary brother, who has practiced with team members and endowed UCLA tennis scholarships. “Our whole family is really close.”
That closeness stems from her parents, who remained fervent about their kids having a grounded upbringing despite their obvious tennis talents. Even after her brother was a teenage millionaire and Stella lived up to her name as a star UCLA player, the Sampras kids remained under one roof in their childhood home. Their parents would often stay home as well as they would get nervous watching Pete compete. While Pete was on tour, sister Stella did take over his room in the house located just 25 minutes south of the Westwood campus.
So it’s understandable that the queen of Westwood tennis looks to carry that family dynamic into every aspect of her life, even when building a picturesque roster with her loyal assistant coach of 19 years, Rance Brown.
“We find out how committed [players] are to their tennis,” says Sampras-Webster on the recruiting process.
One player who exemplifies the commitment, character and reputation that UCLA strives for is senior Kyle McPhillips. A former top-10 ITF junior, McPhillips cites Sampras-Webster’s strategic on-court coaching as a key factor in pushing her to clinch the Bruins’ 2014 NCAA team championship title. When McPhillips won the match on an error from UNC’s Hayley Carter, she fell to the ground in disbelief as her teammates piled on top of her.
“To be able to do that for Stella, my team, coaches and family,” said McPhillips of clinching the 4-3 victory over the University of North Carolina, “I felt honored.”
When asked how she was coached over the finish line, McPhillips said Sampras-Webster’s strategy sat at a happy medium, saying: “It was just the right thing.” In addition to winning college’s biggest accolade, the UCLA senior said she could never forget the perplexed look on her coach's face when her students threw an ice-cold bucket of water on her.
While championship memories like this one are embedded in Intercollegiate Tennis Association history, it’s unclear whether the Bruins can repeat so soon. Securing top-tier athletes is becoming increasingly cumbersome, even for coaches like Sampras-Webster. Although there is a deluge of USTA junior tennis tournaments held year-round for 18 and under kids, many who have excelled at another sport drop tennis come high school and subsequently college.
“College tennis is more competitive than it ever was,” said Sampras-Webster, who proposes introducing new initiatives to get more players involved again and have a greater pool of standout athletes. UCLA enters the 2016 ITA season ranked No. 9 in the country, despite having reached the championship team final for two consecutive seasons. “We’ve lost a lot of fans and kids to other sports.”
[caption id="attachment_720" align="aligncenter" width="640"] (Credit: UCLA Athletics)[/caption]
That said, the United States Tennis Association’s mission of promoting the growth of tennis and nurturing tennis players throughout their junior career to make a seamless segue into the college tennis arena is a successful formula. All colleges have benefited from that mission in that their players come into school with a strong understanding of how to compete well, wherever and whenever that may be. Most of the UCLA recruits have been crowned ITF or USTA junior champions, competition experience that has helped make history for the school.
“To get there and win,” said Sampras-Webster of winning the NCAA championship title twice, “Never take that for granted."
Beyond tennis, what she especially never takes for granted is her family, including her husband of 14 years, Steve Webster. Like husband, like wife – as Steve spearheads sports marketing firm CMPR, which represents athletes like Bethanie Mattek-Sands. “My family is number one to me,” says Sampras-Webster, who plans on balancing collegiate tennis coaching with family obligations for as long as she possibly can.
Liz Kobak was ranked on the WTA tour and held the No. 1 ranking in the United States. She has had the honor of playing doubles alongside two of Stella Sampras’ 2008 championship team members, winning the Yucatan doubles title with Yasmin Schnack and reaching the Easter Bowl semi-finals with Elizabeth Lumpkin in 2004.