No. 14 Cal women’s tennis hosts UCSB after two-week hiatus

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Julian Kilchling/File

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For high school students aspiring to live it up in the Golden State for their college years, very few places epitomize the California Dream more than the University of California at Santa Barbara. But for elite tennis players deciding between a handful of top-flight tennis programs across California, the top choice is undoubtedly more ambiguous.

The No. 14 Cal women’s tennis team will build on its case when it hosts none other than UCSB (3-4) this Sunday at the Hellman Tennis Complex.

The Gauchos’ stop in Berkeley will be their second matchup on their second day in NorCal after they begin their trip in Moraga at St. Mary’s. Meanwhile, the Bears (3-1) have spent the past couple of weeks resting and revving up for the next month of dual matches.

“We didn’t get to play as many matches as we wanted and we tried to replicate that in our practices this week,” said head coach Amanda Augustus. “Normally we would have gotten in at least three matches last weekend, so we tried to work on our conditioning and footwork a little bit.”

In the latest ITA rankings poll released earlier this month, freshman Anna Bright, junior Olivia Hauger and senior Karla Popovic clocked in at the No. 28, No. 33 and No. 61 spots in singles, respectively, while UCSB does not have a player in the top 125.

Bright has been the face of Cal tennis so far this season, displaying the poise of a leader despite her first-year status. Although she dropped a spot in the singles poll, the freshman has seamlessly stepped into the court-one spotlight with Popovic yet to play a spring match for undisclosed reasons.

When last spotted in action, Bright helped fuel the Bears to a pair of tune-up wins against San Diego State and Santa Clara. Pairing with fellow freshman Julia Rosenqvist has paid dividends for Bright, as the budding duo meshed to the tune of two doubles victories against the best that the Aztecs and Broncos could offer.

UCSB will counter Bright, Rosenqvist and company with seniors Amanda Atanasson and Palina Dubavets, two returners from last year’s team who, near the end of last season, produced a 10-match win streak. If there’s one area in which the Gauchos possess a slight advantage, it’s the experience of its depth chart that the Bears’ freshmen cannot yet lay claim to.

Atanasson in particular has a flair for the dramatic; as a sophomore transfer in 2016, she was involved in arguably the biggest singles match in program history when she defeated Kansas’s Maria Cardona to clinch UCSB’s first-ever NCAA tournament win.

While the experience of Hauger and Popovic will undoubtedly prove vital to Cal’s tournament chances down the stretch of the season, the youth of the Bears is a notable aspect that opponents will take into account.

But even with the development of Cal’s first-year talent, Augustus already has a couple of other pieces that she can rely on in the clutch too. Junior Maria Smith and sophomore Alexis Nelson have taken giant steps forward in recent weeks, increasing the team’s chances of climbing into the top 10.

UCSB’s picturesque location and “Cali” vibes may outrank Berkeley, but when it comes to the tennis courts, and on paper, the Bears hold a clear advantage. Come this Sunday, this reality should be all but official.

Josh Yuen is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].