The conclusion of the Cal women’s tennis team’s 2020-21 season felt more like a beginning than the end. While not expected to be a major contender, the Bears found some magic and outdid all expectations.
The highlight of the season came when they shocked the favored UCLA en route to winning the Pac-12 conference. Even after they failed to keep their momentum rolling into the NCAA championships, they understood their future potential. Instead of feeling grief at the premature ending of the season, interim head coach Amanda Augustus came away from the year with a sense of optimism.
“I think this group is just scratching the surface of what they can do,” Augustus said.
In its first tournament of the 2021-22 season, the team showed why that excitement was not misplaced, and won three of the competitions at the Cal Fall Invitational. The Bears expanded their trophy case by winning the top-flight competition in both singles and doubles, as well as the Gold Flight doubles tournament.
After suffering a crushing loss to top-seeded North Carolina in last year’s national championship, Haley Giavara and Valentina Ivanov entered the tournament as the fourteenth seed. Yet they quickly showed why those rankings weren’t exactly accurate.
Their road was not easy, as they found themselves in a quarterfinal tiebreaker with BYU’s Anastasia Abramyan and Yujia Huang. Abramyan and Huang nearly pulled off the win, but Giavara and Ivanov held them off in an 8-7 nailbiter. The semifinal against Arizona State was less stressful, and Cal’s top duo handily won 8-3 to advance to the finals.
In a battle of the UCs, the Bears met UCSB’s Amelia Honer and Shakhnoza Khatamova. The two duos exchanged haymakers, with the lead constantly changing and neither tandem being able to run away with it. When Honer and Khatamova took a 6-5 lead, they appeared to finally be in position to put away their opponents.
But the Bears came crawling back, not only to tie but to take a 7-6 lead. In the set’s final point, Ivanov fired a volley past the Gauchos to secure the victory.
Cal freshman Jessica Alsola cruised through the beginning of the top-flight singles contest with lopsided victories in the rounds of 32 and 16. Because of her high seed, she earned a bye in the quarterfinals. In that round, she would battle a familiar face.
The previous day, Alsola and her partner Hannah Viller Moeller had been eliminated in the double’s quarterfinals. However, it wasn’t the last time they would share the court at the invitational. The partners now stood at opposite ends of the net as opponents in the single’s semifinals. In a best-of-three, Viller Moeller narrowly took the first set 7-6. But that was all she’d get from her teammate, as Alsola completely reversed the momentum with consecutive 6-1 and 6-2 victories to punch her ticket into the trophy match.
Coming off of two dominant sets, Alsola took two more. The freshman faced SDSU senior Tamara Arnold in the finals, and wasted no time getting to the trophy presentation. She won four break points in the first set for a 6-2 victory, and ended the tournament with a clean 6-0 second set. This is Alsola’s first collegiate trophy, and will likely be the first of many.
The Bears took home a third trophy via Erin Richardson and Makenna Thiel, who won the second-flight doubles tournament. They now look ahead to the St. Mary’s Invitational and the ITA Women’s All-American Championships. These two tournaments occur back-to-back, meaning that Cal will travel from Morega, California, to Charleston, South Carolina, and only get a night’s rest before competing again in the morning.
It’s a demanding task, but this group has proved that they are capable of facing whatever stands in their way.
Casey Grae covers women’s tennis. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.