The women’s tennis team at Cal Poly Pomona is playing host to an invitational tournament this weekend. It will end Sunday with three matches, and the results will run in tiny type somewhere on the back pages of area newspapers, if at all.
The tournament is named the Xenia Anastasiadou Invitational, and sometime today, Cal Poly’s coach, Ann Lebedeff, will do what she has done for the last seven years. She will gather the players around her--not just hers but those from Cal State Bakersfield, Abilene Christian, Cal State L.A., UC Davis and U.S. International--and tell them why the tournament has its name.
She will give them the quick version: That Xenia Anastasiadou was Cal Poly’s No. 1 player in 1987 and ’88, that she won the NCAA Division II title both of those years--the only women’s national champion from the school since the NCAA took over Division II sanctioning from the Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. That in 1989, Anastasiadou’s senior season, she was ranked No. 1 in the country in the preseason and had already won a national invitational tournament. And that Anastasiadou was in an auto accident Feb. 18 and died Feb. 19, the day before Pomona was to open its home dual season.
The players, as they always do, will listen soberly, then go out and become absorbed in their matches. Thoughts of what they had just heard about the past will be quickly lost in the action of the present. The big old brown bench on the side of the court with the little gold plaque telling about Anastasiadou will serve more for seating than commemorating.
Still, this tournament, one of the highlights of the Division II women’s tennis season, is a bittersweet time for those around Cal Poly Pomona who still remember.
It is so for Karen Miller, the athletic director who was the tennis coach for many years and who had much to do with getting Anastasiadou, a member of the Greek national team, to come from Athens to Pomona.
It is also so for Ron Fremont, assistant athletic director, who remembers being told about Anastasiadou’s accident, being told that she would probably be all right, and then coming to work very early that Sunday morning, Feb. 19, because he knew he’d have a big job to do that day.
“I don’t know why, I just knew she was dead,” Fremont says.
And it is especially so for Lebedeff, the former world-ranked player who coached successfully in Division I at the University of Arizona and who had been ultimately convinced to take the job at Pomona, while finishing her doctorate in athletic administration at USC, by Anastasiadou.
For Lebedeff, there have been few stranger times.
She had only been on the job a few months when she started feeling ill. In her late 30s, she ignored it for a while, but then had tests done the week of Feb. 12, 1989. Because of the tests, she asked Anastasiadou to run practice for her on Saturday the 18th, a very normal request of a player who was already a three-time All-American and was probably good enough to pursue a pro career with some expectation of success.
“She had such a flair for the game,” Lebedeff recalls. “She had the European clay game, but she could also play on hard courts. She could slice from both sides, hit drop shots from the baseline. She was a wonderful player.”
Anastasiadou had come to Southern California from Greece because she had a married sister and an uncle who lived in Southern California. She found a nice university to play for, made friends quickly and had a nice job at a sporting goods store in Covina. She was 22, and life was good.
The morning of Feb. 18, 1989, she ran the team practice, then got into her car, one of those big old American-built tanks that parents of young drivers love because of their apparent invincibility. Heading back to her apartment in Diamond Bar, she stopped along the way to buy a soft drink and mail a letter.
Then, instead of heading east from the school on Temple, the normal route that would cross over the 57 Freeway, she took a shortcut through the Lanterman Hospital complex that allowed her to cross over the 57 on a little-used street called Highland Valley.
On this sunny Saturday morning, only three or four blocks from her apartment, Anastasiadou had the green light at Highland Valley and went through heading east. She was hit point blank on the driver’s side by a car coming rapidly down the hill on Diamond Bar Boulevard. Later, the driver of the other car said his brakes had failed.
A friend driving by recognized what was left of Anastasiadou’s car and soon the phone calls to friends in the area and family in Greece began. Her parents, John and Katherina, got on an airplane in Athens immediately.
Xenia Anastasiadou, who had massive head and internal injuries, died early Sunday morning. Her parents were met at LAX by her uncle, who told them their daughter had died as they flew over the Atlantic.
Cal Poly Pomona had three dual matches that week, Lebedeff’s first home matches as the school’s coach. Before she left home for the first of those matches Monday afternoon, Lebedeff got a call from her doctor, telling her that she had cancer of the uterus.
Lebedeff’s team played that day, although not well.
“They cried all the way through the match,” Lebedeff says. “It was therapy, not tennis.”
Lebedeff went home that night and opened her mail. There was a letter from Anastasiadou, mailed on Saturday, Feb. 18. It began: “Dear Coach, I’m looking forward to our season and I’m looking forward to playing for a coach like you. . . .”
The team, minus its superstar, finished seventh in the country that year. As it was warming up to play its first match in the NCAA tournament, one team member glanced at the sky and saw two planes cross, leaving a white trail from each that created a giant “X” miles above.
“We weren’t one of those real religious groups,” Lebedeff says, “but that gave us a real jolt, like she was telling us she was there with us.”
A young player named Onnaca Heron took over Anastasiadou’s No. 1 spot that year, and eventually sparked the 1991 team to Lebedeff’s first NCAA title, a championship that was repeated in ’92.
Now, Lebedeff’s cancer is gone. But memories of Anastasiadou and that awful time in 1989 are not.
“I remember thinking, when all this happened,” Lebedeff says, “that at least I still had a chance. Xenia had none.”