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Rising Sun: Texas freshman wins stunner as Longhorns claim NCAA women’s tennis title

Texas claims third national title in women’s tennis, first since 1995, and more success is likely coming with young, loaded roster

Texas freshman Lulu Sun, center, celebrates with teammates the Longhorns' NCAA national championship win over Pepperdine on Saturday. Sun's three-set singles win in the final match won it for Texas.

The situation looked dire Saturday night. And yet, Texas’ freshmen refused to break.

“Honestly, at the end, I was going to cramp,” Lulu Sun said. “So I was just like, survive the last few games and just throw everything I have. I guess it worked.”

At times, the circumstances looked hopeless. And yet, the Longhorns stood tall.

“It’s such a cliché, but the kids on the team know I’m never one to be speechless,” UT coach Howard Joffe said. “But I’m a little bit speechless.”

And when the Horns needed it most, their fans — including the Longhorns men’s team, cheering from the sidelines — cranked up the volume in Orlando, Fla.

“It got me going,” Peyton Stearns said of the racket pumping up UT’s racquets. “I was like, ‘I want to win for Texas.’”

In a dual match lasting four hours and one minute, Sun couldn’t wait a single second longer. She collapsed into her teammates’ arms after a thrilling 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 win over Pepperdine’s Taisiya Pachkaleva to help the Longhorns clinch the NCAA women’s tennis national championship.

Second-ranked Texas won the match 4-3 to clinch the program’s third national title. The Horns also won it all in 1993 and 1995. But this one could be the start of a monster run for a women’s program that’s now on equal footing with a men’s team that hoisted the trophy in 2019 and reached the national semifinals this year, too.

Jay Hartzell, the university president and No. 1 tennis fan on campus, will gladly light that Tower.

“Texas tennis, men and women, is in excellent shape,” said Joffe, the women’s coach who left Texas A&M in 2015 for UT thinking it was a better long-term destination. On Saturday, in front of the packing, pulsating grandstands at the USTA National Campus, he was proven right.

Semifinals:Acting as a ‘heat-seeking missile,’ Texas women dominate N.C. State in NCAA tennis

These Longhorns (31-1) were backhanding and smashing just about anyone who got in their way this month. But the fifth-ranked Waves (25-4) could send it right back.

Pepperdine had already popped open the can and let that fresh air out of No. 1 North Carolina, the only team to beat UT this season. Slaying another giant and taking that trophy back to Malibu, Calif., would sure look nice.

The Waves were coming in waves from the start on Saturday. Shiori Fukuda and Pachkaleva won their doubles match 6-1, and it appeared their teammates would snatch that first point. But UT’s Kylie Collins and Sun finished off a 7-6 win with three tiebreaker points. Literally seconds later, UT’s Charlotte Chavatipon watched as Stearns slammed match point into one of her opponent’s shins.

Texas had a 1-0 lead, but Pepperdine wasn’t fazed. The Waves had no problem securing opening set wins on courts one, two, five and six to take back all the momentum.

“I told the girls that, yes, we want to win,” Pepperdine coach Per Nilsson said. “But at the same time, we want to show the people what Pepperdine tennis is all about and that they would enjoy what was going on out there. And I think we did.”

Pepperdine’s Jessica Failla would eventually score a 6-2, 6-3 win over Texas senior Anna Turati, who came back to school after the pandemic just for this moment. Turati was a huge reason why the Horns were in the season’s final match in the first place, going 19-4 this season.

Texas senior Anna Turati, center, celebrates the Longhorns' national championship win over Pepperdine at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. She decided to return for one final season this year after the 2020 season was canceled.

Lisa Zaar then notched a 6-3, 7-6 win over Collins to give Pepperdine a second point. All the Horns had to do was win three matches, while the Waves had to win four singles matches.

Stearns found herself down 6-2 after the first set to Ashley Lahey. Something must’ve clicked during the break. When Stearns returned for the second set, she ripped off eight consecutive points, not giving Lahey a break until well into the third set. Stearns closed it out with dominating 6-0, 6-2 scores. 

“The scoreboard wasn’t terribly favorable, but the tennis, what was happening on the court, looked favorable to me,” Joffe said.

Texas freshman Peyton Stearns reacts to her singles victory over Pepperdine's Ashley Lahey in the NCAA national championship. “It got me going,” Stearns said of the loud UT fans in the stands. “I was like, ‘I want to win for Texas.’”

By the end, Lahey, a senior, was broken by the freshman.

“I think just for me personally I’ve put in a lot of work throughout this semester, and I’m sure all the other teams have,” Lahey said, “but I was a little disappointed in my performance here this week, not being able to dig deep and find what I really needed.”

Meanwhile, Chavatipon was busy closing out a 6-3, 6-2 win over Fukuda, easily the cleanest win for the Horns all night. Pepperdine’s Nikki Redelijk knocked off Malaika Rapolu 6-4, 7-5, and it was all tied up 3-3.

It came down to court three between two freshman — UT’s Sun from Geneva, Switzerland and Pepperdine’s Pachkaleva from Moscow, Russia.

Sun won the first set 6-4, but Pachkaleva took the second 7-6 with three tiebreakers. The final set, everyone in the facility was watching the metaphorical center court. Baylor and Florida fans filing in for the men’s final were just as on edge as those backing the Longhorns or Waves.

Joffe speaks so much about how tennis is a mental game, and this was a true mind-check moment. “I didn’t hear the crowd. It was just me and Howard,” Sun said.

Sun went up 5-3 in the third set, but Pachkaleva — who closed out Pepperdine’s North Carolina win — just kept coming. Finally, having reached championship match point, Sun put it away, cementing a permanent spot in Texas athletics lore.

“Lulu hit her with everything, and all she did was come back and back and back,” Joffe said. “Many, many questions were asked of Lulu tonight, and she answered them all. And that’s why Texas has this trophy right here.”

Texas players celebrate their 4-3 win over Pepperdine in Saturday's NCAA championship match. It was the third national title in program history.

With six freshmen on the roster, Texas might scare off top players in the years to come. And more are coming, including highly-touted twins Allura and Bella Zamarripa from St. Helena, Calif. 

More success is likely coming for Texas, too. With one national title now on the books, Joffe’s Longhorns are just getting going.

“I felt like one way or the other, we'd get over the line today,” Joffe said. “But the idea that we’d actually get to the final with the obstacles and the difficulty and the inexperience, it really is a pretty remarkable.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.