Stella Sampras Webster Q&A
Jan. 14, 2009
Q: This is the first time that you've entered a season as the coach of the defending champions. Would you say there is a little less pressure this year after winning it all in 2008?
A: There is always pressure. I'd say now the only difference is instead of having pressure to win our first title, there is now pressure to repeat. It seems like most people want to know if we are going to be able to have that same success again this year, however this is a new team with new players. We are so proud of winning last year. To capture the program's first title since 1981 was special for the players, the coaches, and really everyone at this school. We will certainly use last year's team as a model of what a championship team plays like, looks like, trains like, etc. But this is a new year and we are focusing on what's ahead rather than what we've already accomplished as great as that was. There is a lot of work to do to get back to the level that the team was at at the end of last year. It's a challenge we're looking forward to and can't wait to get started.
Q: Is winning the national championship again something that motivates you as a coach?
A: I wouldn't say it is what motivates me, but it certainly was an incredible experience and an amazing feeling that we were just blessed to be a part of, and I would hope that everyone could have that type of feeling at some point. Winning another championship, as great as that would be, isn't the reason I coach. I am motivated in that daily excellence of trying to get a player or a team to be the best it can be. Winning the title last year was the result of our daily commitment to improve as a team. Seeing the players work hard and then be rewarded for that effort is what motivates me as a coach.
Q: Last year's team returned every player from a team that finished as the NCAA runner-up in 2007. Did you feel that last year was finally going to be your year?
A: I knew we had a chance but I wouldn't say I predicted it by any means. I've seen so many talented teams and so many teams that were expected to win that didn't. We were the team to beat last year and we were the best team in the country. But just because you are supposed to win doesn't guarantee a championship. That's why I'm so appreciative that we were able to do it. Everything went our way and just clicked at the right time. We were fortunate that everyone was healthy towards the end of the year. We also had four very experienced and talented seniors who really stepped up and led this team to the title.
Q: Speaking of the seniors, how do you compensate for the loss of those players this year?
A: I think it's just going to be a totally different approach by the coaching staff. It's definitely going to be more hands on. The new players are not going to be as experienced and we are going to have to show them and educate them as to what our expectations are. It's definitely more of a teaching year as opposed to last year where the players knew what needed to be done. We as a staff have to work that much harder this year in order to get the players to a place where they can be successful and compete day in and day out against some of the top teams in college tennis.
Q: Doubles was one of the strengths of the team last year. How do you see that area of the lineup in 2009?
A: Most people who only saw us at the NCAAs don't know this, but we really struggled with doubles at the beginning of last year. We were forced to mix some teams up due to injuries, but by the end of the year we were really clicking in doubles. So although it was definitely was one of our strengths towards the end of the year, it was a process of getting teams to gel together. I see the same thing happening this year. We have some young players who are going to be in the doubles lineup and I think it's just going to take a little while for them to adjust and feel comfortable out there with a partner who they haven't played a whole lot of doubles with. I'm hoping that after an initial feeling out process we can start to come together and play some great doubles by the time the conference season rolls around. We take a lot of time working on our doubles and it's an area of our program that we've been pretty successful with in the past. Our teams aren't set yet, but I'd say there is a good chance that Nina (Pantic) and Yasmin (Schnack) will play together - they won a tournament in the fall. Carling (Seguso) and Ashley (Joelson) could be a solid team for us. Of course Stephanie Wetmore - a very experienced doubles player - will be out there with either Maya (Johansson) or Anna-Viktoria (Lind). So we definitely have some options. It's going to be exciting to see where it all shakes out in the end.
Q: And then in terms of singles, is there an area of the lineup where you feel the team is strongest?
A: I think the lineup is pretty balanced to be quite honest. Obviously we are going to rely a lot on Yasmin and Andrea to step up and play in our top two. They were tremendous last year and are both very capable of being very solid for us in those positions. Having Maya here is great and she will likely be in our top three. And don't forget that we get Ashley Joelson back. She was in the lineup last year but ended up missing the last half of the season with an injury. She is our senior leader and someone who has always done well for us in the past. If I had to put her at No. 4 I'd feel great about our lineup. And then you have the five and six positions where players are going to have to battle it out to see who plays in the top six . Nina Pantic, who won't be available until the second half of the season, is certainly capable of filling the No. 4 or 5 spots. Another freshman, Carling Seguso, is going to be right there, as will Anna-Viktoria Lind and Stephanie Wetmore. So we really have a lot of options as far as the singles lineup goes. Hopefully we can stay healthy and not let injuries dictate who plays when and where.
Q: What are your thoughts on how the team did during the fall season?
A: I was excited to see how everyone played. The fall doesn't exactly determine how everyone will be playing during the season - I've seen many players compete much better in dual matches than in individual tournaments - but it's a good early indicator to see how your players, especially the newcomers, stack up against the competition. I was happy with what I saw. Our practices were very focused and intense. This could be a year where we struggle in the beginning but I see this team getting better and better as the season goes along. The newcomers are excited to be here and the returnees want to get back that feeling of winning a championship. It's going to be a fun year.
Q: How big of a boost is it to get Maya Johansson from Georgia Tech?
A: It was huge. She is someone who is going to contribute right away. She has a great game, great work ethic, great character. Maya is a leader as well. I know that she is happy to be here and very appreciative of what we have to offer her at UCLA. It has been a good place for her so far and I think it shows in her tennis.
She has been playing some excellent tennis and we expect a lot out of her this year.Q: You also get Ashley Joelson back from injury. She was instrumental in this team's success last year before getting hurt.
A: Having Ashley healthy again is going to be a big boost for this team. She is our senior leader and someone with the most experience on this team. She stepped up in the fall and let the other players know what her expectations are and what they need to do in order for this team to be successful. Ashley is a competitor and a warrior, and we know that she always competes to the fullest. I think that is something that the newcomers are going to see and I hope some of her qualities rub off on them. She definitely has earned the respect of her teammates.
Q: What are some of the goals of this year's team?
A: We always want to contend for a title but we realize that there are steps to get there. Our focus is always to work on the steps and deal with the things that we need to. If we do that, the championships and the wins will come. Obviously we always want to beat USC. We also want to be strong in the Pac-10 and contend for that championship again. There is no telling how good this team can be - I really don't know to be quite honest. I do know that this team will get better and it's going to be a different team at the end of the year than it is now. Our overall goal is just to improve and be better in May than we are in January.
Q: Lastly, what are your thoughts on this year's schedule? Do you think it will adequately prepare the team for the NCAAs in May?
A: Being in the Pac-10 we always play a pretty difficult schedule. Our players are going to be tested, which I think is always a good thing. Obviously Stanford, USC, Cal and Arizona State are all top teams and will be tough matches for us again this year. As far as the non-conference schedule, we are traveling to Baylor for the first time so that is going to be interesting. I think it's going to be exciting for our players to go to Waco and see what it's like to play against a vocal crowd in a place they've never been before. We are also hosting the qualifying for the ITA Indoors, which is something new and exciting. We open up with Cal State Northridge and Pepperdine in the first week of the season. Those two matches will give us an idea of where we are at and what we need to work on. We can't wait to get started.