Cal women’s tennis future on display at Saint Mary’s

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It’s often difficult to predict the trajectory of an athlete’s career just weeks into it. Are early wins a sign of future stardom? Can a scout truly envision one’s long-term success based on a small sample size? As evidenced in Michael Lewis’ bestseller “Moneyball,” it’s difficult to tell the difference between a star and a bust.

For senior Karla Popovic, her time as a Bear began on court six — the lowest seeded court that tournament play has to offer. Fast forward a few years, and she’s the undisputed leader on court one and among Cal’s top student-athletes of any sport in recent memory. Despite a 6-3, 6-3 round of 16 loss in this weekend’s Riviera ITA All-American Championships to Vanderbilt’s 63rd-ranked Fernanda Contreras, it’s no doubt that Popovic has come a long way since court six.

“(Karla’s) really shown that she’s going to be one of the top national players to watch in the weeks to come,” said head coach Amanda Augustus.

As Popovic kicks off her final season in blue and gold, it’s just two weeks into the collegiate careers of freshmen Jasie Dunk, Vivian Glozman and Anna Bright. Even with lofty expectations, history says it’s too early to consider any of them the next Maria Sharapova, or at the very least, the next Karla Popovic.

Or is it?

Competing for the second time in as many weeks, the trio of freshmen played on a much smaller stage than Popovic and junior Olivia Hauger, traveling to nearby St. Mary’s College for an encore of last week’s fast start. While Augustus first and foremost wants her players healthy and getting matches under their belt, it’s evident early and often that these freshmen aren’t playing just to add tournaments to their resume. Whether it be on court six or court one, they’re there to win.

The “A” flight saw the emergence of Bright take home not just the singles title, but also the doubles title in tandem with Glozman, the first of what could be many tournament titles for the young duo. The pair took down UC Santa Barbara’s third-seeded Elizaveta Volodko and Lise Sentenac, 8-4, just one week after falling to Popovic and Hauger in the Cal Fall Invitational. The last Bear to win the singles title at the Gaels’ invite? Karla Popovic. Another teammate who won the “A” doubles title in that same tournament? That would be Hauger.

But Bright wasn’t the only Bear blowing away the rest of the field. Dunk complemented her successful debut with a title of her own in the “B” flight, outplaying Eastern Washington’s Rylee Braeden. Other strong performances included that of junior Maria Smith and sophomore Alexis Nelson, who both made it to the quarters of the doubles flight.

After initially intending to play in both singles and doubles draws at the ITA championships, Popovic and Hauger opted to stick with just singles for rest purposes. However, rest was far from Hauger’s itinerary, as the underdog rattled off three consecutive wins in qualifying rounds to find a way into the main draw.

“It’s a matter of figuring out what to do against different players because they’re all very skilled,” Hauger said. “From there it’s just about staying focused.”

Popovic and Hauger ended their tournament run on the same day, but not before the latter had made her presence felt against some of the rising players this season has to offer. While the former rightfully garners the majority of headlines, it’s no secret that Cal’s freshmen are chasing a duo of Bears who are set for nothing short of dominance this season.

Josh Yuen covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].