Karla Popovic has made it clear that she will undoubtedly be the next superstar of the Cal women’s tennis team. Her performance through fall thus far should quiet those who might think otherwise.
From Friday to Tuesday, the junior continued her dominant play throughout the USTA/ITA Northwest Regional Championships, which were held at Stanford.
Popovic, who holds an ITA preseason ranking of 90, was the fifth seed in the tournament and only dropped one set on her way to the title as well as an automatic berth in the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships, which start in two weeks.
In her first round on Friday, Popovic easily took out Kamila Kecki of UC Davis, 6-0, 6-1. Later that same day, she defeated Portland’s Radina Dimitrova with a score of 6-3, 6-1.
Popovic continued playing at a high level Saturday and started the day with a 6-0, 6-2 victory over Washington’s Katerina Kopcalic. Afterward, she won against Stanford’s Emily Arbuthnott, 6-4, 6-2, securing a spot in the quarterfinals.
On Sunday, the rising Bear made quick work of yet another opponent with a 6-1, 6-3 quarterfinal performance against the ninth seed, Florida State’s Katerina Stloukalova.
In the semifinal against San Jose State’s Sybille Gauvain, Popovic found herself in trouble for the first time all weekend. After winning the first set, 7-5, she dropped the next, 3-6. Popovic proved her toughness, however, and put the previous set behind her on the way to a 6-4 third set, and match, win.
This set up a second consecutive final between Popovic and Stanford freshman Emma Higuchi. In the final round of the Saint Mary’s Invitational on Oct. 9, Popovic defeated Higuchi with a score of 6-4, 6-0. Their second match was no different, with the Bear making her status as the the best player in the field clear with a 6-2, 6-2 championship win.
“This really means a lot, all of the hard work and effort I put in this offseason is paying off,” Popovic said. “I just focused on my own game and tried to stay aggressive throughout the tournament.”
With the win, Popovic added to her undefeated record, which now stands at 21-0 on the season. She also claimed her second straight singles title.
“Karla set these goals for herself at the end of last season. She had a really good finish to the year, and we came up with a plan and executed it in order to build upon that success,” said head coach Amanda Augustus. “This will be her first big national tournament, and this is a fabulous example of dedication, hard work and commitment.”
Two other Cal players also made deep runs at the tournament. Senior Maegan Manasse, the No. 1 seed, reached the Round of 16 in her first tournament back from injury but withdrew to yet another unspecified injury.
Olivia Hauger, the sixth seed, also made it to the Round of 16 but lost to Stanford’s Higuchi, 6-0, 6-1.
In doubles, Popovic completed a sweep with her partner Hauger, but it was not without drama. The pairing, the seventh seed, had enjoyed a relatively easy tournament until the semifinals. Here, they found themselves playing against their own teammates, Manasse and Denise Starr, the No. 1 seed.
Starr and Manasse were runners up at last season’s NCAA Doubles Championship, but this was their first tournament playing together this fall. In a tight match, Popovic and Hauger prevailed with a 6-1, 6-7(5), 1-0(8) win. They went on to win the final as well. This was the team’s second straight title together, as they also won at the Saint Mary’s Invitational.
“Olivia and I have a great energy on court, and we were excited to play (Manasse and Starr), so it was a great fight,” Popovic said.
The National Indoor Championships will take place Nov. 3 to Nov. 6 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York. Popovic will be in the singles draw and also in doubles with Hauger. Other Bears still have the chance to be selected as at-large players, and selections will be released in the coming days.
Nikhil Bhumralkar covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].