It sounded odd, coming from Stella Sampras. The new women’s tennis coach at UCLA--by all accounts a polite and easygoing woman--was telling about putting her foot down for the first time with her young team.
“I’ve suspended two players already,” she said, laughing and not revealing the names. “That’s never happened here. I needed to set boundaries, to make a statement. I’m a little tough. . . . I have learned over the years that you need to let players know what you expect.”
Sampras is reveling in her first year as head coach, finally implementing her ideas and stamping her style onto the successful program.
“I think the practices are more structured,” she said. “I work better with structure, and the team works better with structure. I want our team to be the fittest team. I’m into the ‘team'--I want us to win the NCAA team title, which we haven’t won since 1981.”
It’s tough talk from a usually reserved person, but Sampras has easily discerned that her role as an approachable and friendly assistant coach changed the day she took over from Bill Zaima to start this season.
What she has to work with is a team lacking experience. Four players from last season’s top six are gone, either to graduation or the professional tour. Sampras has only one junior in her six-player singles rotation.
“I knew this year would be a rebuilding year,” she said. “I think this team can do well. I’m excited to see what they can do. They are going to get better and better. They are young, but it makes them eager and enthusiastic. They listen. They want to get better.”
The collegiate outdoor season has just started, and UCLA is 1-0.
Kati Kocsis, who transferred from Southern Mississippi, is playing No. 1 singles. The Hungarian sophomore is ranked No. 6 nationally and has a 14-4 record in both indoor and outdoor matches. Elisabeth Schmidt, ranked No. 29 nationally, is playing at No. 2, and Annica Cooper, who is ranked No. 39 and won the Pacific 10 indoor championships, is at No. 3.
Freshman Katia Roubanova recently joined the team and brings a rare tennis pedigree. Her mother is former Russian pro Olga Morozova. The former top-10 player defeated defending champion Billie Jean King to get to the Wimbledon final in 1974, then lost to Chris Evert.
The daughter seems to have inherited much of the mother’s playing style: a fluid, all-court player with a big serve.
It may be the measure of Sampras’ future value to the UCLA program that Roubanova was brought to Sampras’ attention by a former Cal player now on the pro tour.
“It helps to have contacts,” Sampras said.
Roubanova is playing at No. 5, but is expected to move up. Team captain Kelly Rudolph, runner-up to Cooper at the Pac-10 indoors, is at No. 4 and sophomore Brandi Freudenberg at No. 6.
Sampras, older sister of Pete Sampras, is happy to point out that her team has at last attained the same privilege the men enjoy--the right to practice at their home courts. That’s where they’ll be on Tuesday, as UCLA plays host to Pepperdine at 1:30 p.m. All the Bruins’ home matches are held at the L.A. Tennis Center on campus. Admission is free.
The Pepperdine match will be a telling early-season test. The fall rankings have UCLA at No. 7, Pepperdine at No. 8 and USC at No. 19.
The Waves, coached by Gualberto Escudero, are 3-0 even without two players who have been recovering from injuries. Pepperdine’s top player, Zsofia Csapo, is ranked No. 37 nationally in singles.
The Trojans, coached by Richard Gallien, are 1-1 and have a roster of No. 1 Ditta Huber, No. 2 Nicole London, No. 3 Eva Jimenez, No. 4 Karolina Baklarova, No. 5 Pam Trump and No. 6 Amber Basica.
UCLA will play host to the NCAA Division I men’s championships May 17-25 at the L.A. Tennis Center. The last time the tournament was held at UCLA, in 1965, the Bruins won the team title, led by Arthur Ashe, who won the singles and doubles titles. The Bruins are ranked No. 2 in the nation, led by Eric Taino and Matt Breen.