PASADENA — The were no shortage of factors stacked against Karen Ataian in her bid to capture the Pacific League girls' tennis singles crown on Wednesday. If the junior from Crescenta Valley had paused to dwell on any of the numerous reasons for her to lose to No. 1 seed Francis Dean of Arcadia in the championship match of the league tournament at Pasadena High, she might have ended up doing just that.
But instead of thinking about the physical toll of her marathon tiebreaker win in the semifinal, or the fact that she would have to go the distance again to beat Dean after losing the first set badly, or even of how unstoppable her undefeated opponent had been all season, Ataian stayed composed and took it one point at a time.
"I didn't think about winning, I just played my game," said Ataian, the No. 3 seed, who won the league doubles title with partner Sarah Ali last season.
Ataian's laser focus and refusal to buckle paid off in a career day, as she rallied to win the second set and force another tiebreaker, where she assumed control to upset Dean, 1-6, 6-4, 10-6, and claim her first league singles title in dramatic fashion.
"I'm thrilled," Falcons Coach Sarah Wiggins said. "I think Francis maybe got a little comfortable after winning that first set and Karen kept at her, found a few things that were working, steadied herself and took care of it. I'm really proud of her. She really played a smart, steady game."
Ataian's day started with a 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 11-9 win over Falcons teammate Emily Borkowski, who was seeded No. 2. Meanwhile Dean breezed through her semifinal match with Burroughs' Kathy Henry, 6-1, 6-0.
"It was really tough playing her friend, mentally, they had to work through a lot of things in that one," Wiggins said of Ataian, who automatically qualified for the CIF Individual Tournament by reaching the finals Wednesday.
Dean, the two-time reigning singles champion, who hadn't lost a match this season while playing in the No. 1 slot for the league-champion Apaches, looked well on her way to another easy win after dominating the opening set of the finals.
"I just started hitting my shots," Ataian said of her approach to mounting a comeback. "I said, 'Why not? It's the finals, I'm already into [CIF] sectionals.'"
Ataian won the first set of the second game and, even after briefly falling behind, later held serve to tie the set at 4. The turning point of the match came when Ataian broke Dean's serve in the very next game to go back up, 5-4, and then swiftly served out the set while losing only one point in the next game.
"In that second set, she started off strong and you could see the confidence," Wiggins said. "When she was losing [points] it was because she was missing her shots, it wasn't because Francis was beating her. When she started to believe in herself, she took care of it."
In the tiebreaker, Ataian and Dean were knotted at 3 at the first changeover, and Dean pulled ahead, 4-3, when her serve return took an odd bounce off the side of her racket only to bounce just inside the baseline on Ataian's side of the court and into the fence on one hop.
Undaunted, Ataian won five of the next six points to take an 8-5 lead on a forehand winner, more than enough of a margin for Ataian to secure the victory.
"[Ataian] overpowered [Dean] as the match continued," Arcadia Coach Jerry Dohling said. "Once she won the second set, she had all the momentum for the tiebreaker. We've played against her now for a couple years, but that's clearly the best she's ever played. For her to go out and beat her teammate in that grueling match in the semifinals and then turn around and have to play another tiebreaker is an amazing amount of tennis to play, and to do it at that high of a level is a great tribute to her."
Borkowski went on to defeat Henry for third place, 8-3, and secure an alternate slot for the CIF Individual Tournament. The Falcons doubles team of Jackie Dilanchian and Viktoriya Shumakova just missed doing the same, finishing fourth after losing to eventual runners-up Ashley Basco and Meredy Gharabegi, 6-4, 7-5 in the semifinals.
"I'm disappointed with my doubles because they didn't have their best day," Wiggins said. "I think the nerves got to them."
Arcadia's Nadia Pacheco-Amaro and Elizabeth Live captured the doubles title with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Basco and Gharabegi.