2023 NCAA Championships: Freshmen Sieg, Tian to battle for spot in the D1 women's final
There's been no learning curve for two of the country's best rookies this year during the individual event at the 2023 NCAA Championships: USC freshman Maddy Sieg and UCLA first-year Tian Fangran will square off Friday at the USTA National Campus in Orlando for the right to play for a national title.
The No. 1 singles players for their respective schools in their first seasons, Sieg and Tian set the semifinal showdown with two contrasting wins in Thursday's quarterfinals: Tian, from Beijing, China, was the first woman through to the final four with a comprehensive 6-4, 6-2 win over Michigan's Kari Miller, while Sieg, a native of Greenwich, Conn., needed three sets to come through against South Carolina's Ayana Akli, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.
"I have high expectations for myself, even as a freshman, but looking at the draw on the first day, I thought, 'Wow, this is a tough one,'" Sieg said afterwards. "But to be in the semis, I knew I could do it. I'm just happy to be here."
It was Sieg's second straight three-set triumph in less than 24 hours: In the Round of 16, she came from a set down to upset fourth-seeded Dasha Vidmanova of Georgia, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
"Knowing I was able to get through it yesterday gave me the confidence to be able to do it again today," she said. "I knew even when I won the first set that [Akli] was going to be able to fight back. She's a very tough competitor. I knew I was going to have a little bit of a challenge, even though the first set was 6-1. But I just was able to take that. I knew I felt a little bit nervous, but every match there's some sort of challenge, so I was able to work through it. That's why I think I'm a really good competitor."
The pair's run is emblematic of the overall story of the women's individual championships in Orlando so far: parity. No. 2 seed Mary Stoiana of Texas A&M lost in Round 1 on the opening day of play on Monday, and No. 1 seed Fiona Crawley of team champions North Carolina was bounced in the Round of 16 by NC State's Amelia Rajecki on Wednesday.
Read more at usta.com: After team heartbreak, Rajecki stuns No. 1 Crawley
Only four of the eight quarterfinalists were seeded, and that quartet, including Sieg and Tian, were all No. 9-16 seeds. The finalist from the other side of the draw will be unseeded: Rajecki, who followed up her upset of Crawley with a 6-4, 6-3 win over the seeded Carol Lee of Georgia Tech, will face Oklahoma's Layne Sleeth, who beat Stanford's Angelica Blake 7-6(4), 6-4. Sleeth had previously toppled the No. 6 seed, Chloe Beck of Duke, in the Round of 16.
While it might be easy to dream big in their first-ever NCAA tournament, both players have been focused only on what's in front of them.
"I saw there were four seeded, four not seeded just on an Instagram post," Sieg said with a laugh, "but other than that, I just see who I have for that day. Then if I get through it, I see who I have for the next one and game plan that way."
"Everyone here is good," Tian added. "It's unpredictable, like, who you're going to play and [how you're] going to play in the match. I just focus on the current shot, current point. I'll see my [next] opponent after I win the match."
Tian has been a spark for legendary coach Stella Sampras-Webster's Bruins since she arrived on campus, and is UCLA’s first singles semifinalist since Riza Zalameda in 2005. A 28-7 record in the top spot this year earned her the Pac-12's Newcomer of the Year honor, as well as first-team all-conference selection.
"I am so lucky to be on the team at UCLA," Tian said. "We have such good coaches and such a good facility, and my teammates are awesome. The experience here is just wonderful. I can't find any bad parts. I only have good memories.
"Coming to this tournament, it's definitely one of the hardest tournaments I've ever played. Every single player here is so, so good. They are the top players in the country. I love the competition. I think it's really a pleasure that I can play here."
Should Sieg, also a first-team All Pac-12 pick, want to make it to the final, she'll have to beat Tian for the first time this season. The two stars of their respective powerhouses have played twice in dual matches this year, and Tian helped UCLA win both matches. In a 4-1 win for the Bruins at USC on March 16, she led Sieg 6-3, 1-0 when Sieg retired from their No. 1 singles match, and five weeks later, she was a 6-4, 6-3 winner in a thriller that UCLA eventually won 4-3.
While they represent schools that have won four team NCAA titles combined since 1982, Tian is bidding to be UCLA's first individual singles champion since Keri Phebus in 1995 to win the national crown. For Sieg, no Trojan has won the individual title since Beth Herr in 1983.
For more information on the NCAA Championships, including tickets, draws and schedule, visit the USTA's tournament homepage. For all the latest news from the Division I, II and III tournaments, visit USTA.com's news landing page for the event.