UCLA's Keri Phebus didn't win an NCAA tennis championship Saturday, but at least she has the consolation of knowing she'll have two more cracks at it.
A day after upsetting top-seeded Laxmi Poruri in the NCAA singles tournament, the Bruin sophomore from Newport Beach, was beaten in the championship match, 7-6, 6-2, by Georgia's Angela Lettiere. Lettiere, third-seeded in the 64-player, single-elimination tournament, was spurred by a home crowd of nearly 4,000 at the University of Georgia tennis complex.
Phebus, a former Corona del Mar High star, was the first UCLA player to advance to the singles final in the 13 years of the NCAA women's tennis championships. She was the first unseeded player to reach the final since Clemson's GiGi Fernandez in 1983.
"I'm still gunning for a championship and I've got two more years to do it," said Phebus, who finished the season with a 32-8 record. "I'm not stopping now."
Three months ago, however, Phebus wondered if she should stop playing tennis. After losing in the first round of the Pac-10 indoor tournament in Seattle, Phebus, the No. 1 singles player at UCLA, said here this week, "I wondered if tennis was really meant for me."
But Phebus, 20, erased those doubts with five victories in this week's singles tournament, despite not being seeded among the top 16.
"I wanted this for myself, not to prove anything to anybody," said Phebus, who was 12th in the final rankings. "I thought I was worthy of being seeded."
Phebus looked fit to win the singles national title, especially when she defeated Poruri of Stanford on Friday in the semifinals, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. But Phebus hit a wall against Lettiere (46-12). The UCLA player said her serve finally cost her a match.
"I struggled a lot with my serve all season and it showed through today," said Phebus, who double-faulted 11 times. "I hung in there with it all tournament, but it was the bad point of the match for me."
The turning point in the match, according to UCLA Coach Bill Zaima, didn't come during the first-set tiebreaker, but earlier in the set when Phebus led four games to three.
"She could have gone up 5-3, but there were two points where Keri netted two easy shots when she hit some soft shots," Zaima said. "My feeling was if she plays those two points more aggressively she wins the first set, 6-3, and it doesn't even go to a tiebreaker."
When the first set went to the tiebreaker, Lettiere took control by winning the first four points. The senior from Vero Beach, Fla., won the tiebreaker, 7-4, and the first set, 7-6.
After she lost the first set, Phebus felt the emotion drain out of her. "I play a lot on emotion," she said. "She came out for the second set with a lot of determination and I came out flat."
At 2-2 in the second set, Lettiere took over the match for good. She won the next four games, mostly with well-placed lobs over Phebus when the Bruin came to the net.
"She hit a lot of lobs that I could have come down on, but to be honest, my body wouldn't get there," Phebus said. "She came out with a lot of energy . . . I thought she would be dead after all the matches she had played in the team tournament. I was dead . . . I was worn out."