What started out as a pairing born of necessity turned out to be quite a luxury.
Once Sarah Ali and Talia Moradkhanian joined forces, Crescenta Valley High girls' tennis Coach Sarah Wiggins rarely had to think twice about penciling in three wins atop the doubles bracket before each and every match the Falcons played.
The senior duo made its debut in the second match of the year and went on to post a near spotless area-best record of 38-1, while going 24-0 in the Pacific League. Ali and Moradkhanian were also 6-0 over the Falcons' two-match CIF Southern Section Division playoff run and, for their dominant season, were voted All-Area Girls' Doubles Team of the Year by the sports writers and editors of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader and La Cañada Valley Sun.
"I think the two of them, just the way they played and their style of play kind of helped support each other to maximize what they each could bring to the game," says Wiggins, whose squad went 14-5 on the season. "Right off the bat, that little buzz they got really continued throughout the entire season."
But in the beginning, it was a tandem formed more by fate than strategy.
Ali had always been a standout singles player, but shoulder problems were making it difficult for her to dominate one-on-one matchups as she once did. Moradkhanian, who was also dealing with her own hip injury for parts of the season, was expected to be one of the Falcons' top doubles players, but started the year without a clear cut partner.
"Me and Sarah have been wanting to play doubles together since freshman year," Moradkhanian says. "But she was always a singles player and I was always a doubles player and that was just always how it was. Our injuries brought us together and it was the coolest experience because, honestly, she's a sister to me and she's such an amazing tennis player."
Ali swept her singles sets against Hoover in the season opener, but was in so much pain afterward her season was in doubt.
"She was even thinking about dropping out altogether," Wiggins says. "It was kind of like, 'Well, let's just try you in doubles.'
"Talia was very much, 'Let her be my partner,' she was chomping at the bit for a strong partner. To get a leader like Sarah in there, Talia was just so excited that Sarah was going to play with her."
Despite the enthusiasm, it wasn't a surefire bet that the partnership would be an instant success, as the two had never played together and Ali had never even played doubles in high school before.
But a strong chemistry between the two and skill sets that complimented each other well made things feel natural from the get-go.
"I've always loved playing doubles, I always thought it was really fun," Ali says. "I got really lucky to be paired up with Talia because we've been amazing friends from freshman year and we really mesh well together. We really know how to communicate and I was just excited to play with her."
Moradkhanian's strong left-handed serve and aggressive net play balanced well with Ali's confidence and all-around power game, with a devastating backhand serving as her most potent weapon.
The two also displayed a knack for knowing when the other was feeling limited by the effects of their injuries and stepping up their own game accordingly.
"Our games just compliment each other so well and she's such an amazing person," Moradkhanian says. "If your personality doesn't fit with your partner's, it's just not going to work. I was so lucky to be able to play with her.
"We understood each other and didn't really have to say a lot just because we got it. Our personalities just mix really well."
In addition, Ali and Moradkhanian were able to strike the fine balance of competing hard at all times, while still maintaining a measured pace and calm demeanor with each other on the court.
"We are just so close that if we're losing a game, if we're down, 0-3, we still don't get down on ourselves, we don't get negative," Ali says. "We just try to change up our game plan and still have the thought of, 'We're still going to win.' We're just positive all the time."
It wasn't all smooth sailing, as there was one major glitch in Ali and Moradkhanian's great season and it had nothing to do with tennis.
Shortly after the conclusion of the league season, which saw the Falcons finish second behind Arcadia at 6-2, there was fire at Moradkhanian's home. The trauma Moradkhanian experienced as a result of that, combined with her hip injury taking a turn for the worse, led Wiggins to make the tough decision to pair Ali with singles player Karen Ataian for the league final tournament.
Ali and Ataian went on to win the league crown and make a surprising run to the CIF Individuals round of 16.
"My house burnt down a week before individuals and I had torn something in my hip, but I was still playing," Moradkhanian says. "It just kind of worked out that Sarah would be better off in individuals with Karen. They did go really far and I'm really proud of them, but Miss Wiggins telling me I couldn't play in individuals was probably top-10 one of the worst moments of my entire life, just because I love the team and I loved winning for the team, but individuals was finally a chance for me and Sarah to win for ourselves and to go all the way together. But it just didn't work out that way."
Moradkhanian says she was ultimately happy for Ali and Ataian's success, but admitted it was difficult to be replaced. Ali expressed regret that her partner for the entire season was left out, as well.
"We had been talking about [CIF Individuals] all season," Ali says. "It was just like a big bummer that we couldn't play together."
"We didn't want [the last league match] to be our last time playing together as seniors. We wanted to get another opportunity to play together."
Fortunately, there was still the CIF team playoffs, which saw Ali and Moradkhanian reunite and finish the season together on a strong note.
"Talia certainly liked having Sarah back and there was no [animosity] on Talia's part," Wiggins says. "I give Talia a lot of kudos because she was willing to give up her spot when she realized that was the best decision for the team.
"To be able to come back after giving up her partner for a while and to come back and not have any sort of bad feelings about it, that takes a lot, that takes a mature player."
Ali and Moradkhanian began the postseason with 6-3, 6-0, 6-1 wins in the Falcons' 10-8 first-round win over Edison and swept, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 against powerful San Marino in a heartbreaking second-round 9-9 (85-62) loss.
Likely, the biggest, if not only regret Ali and Moradkhanian have about their partnership was that it didn't come about sooner in their high school careers.
"At that point, it was just a temporary thing," Moradkhanian says of the beginning of the season. "But after that, things kind of just fell together.
"Every time me and Sarah played together it was amazing because the chemistry was so strong."