2023 NCAA Championships: Tian Fangran becomes 2nd Bruin to win D1 women's title

Victoria Chiesa | May 27, 2023

ORLANDO - On the eve of the biggest match of her college career so far, UCLA freshman Tian Fangran got a text from a fellow legendary Bruin. Twenty-eight years ago, Keri Phebus was the first, and as of Friday, only Bruin to play for the NCAA Division I women's tennis title, and win it. The 1995 champion wanted to wish Tian luck as she played for the first individual title in program history since then. 


Did it help? Who's to say. But either way, Phebus has now company. On Saturday at the USTA National Campus, Tian beat the University of Oklahoma's Layne Sleeth 6-4, 6-2 in the last women's singles match of the 2022-23 season to take the title of national champion. 

Tian is the second freshman in the last three years to win the women's title, joining Virginia's Emma Navarro in 2021, and she didn't lose a set in six wins, all against nationally-ranked opponents: No. 60 Thasaporn Naklo (Iowa State) 6-4, 6-4; No. 53 Natasha Subhash (Virginia) 6-4, 6-0; No. 29 Alexandra Yepifanova (Stanford) 7-5, 6-3; No. 36 Kari Miller (Michigan) 6-4, 6-2; No. 11 Maddy Sieg (USC) 6-3, 6-2; and No. 50 Sleeth. She finished her first year with a 30-7 overall record in singles, primarily at No. 1 for the Bruins. 


Afterwards, Tian was at a loss for words.


"The feeling doesn't hit me," she said with a laugh. "I don't know. I don't think this is real. It's kind of crazy, this tournament. I still can't believe it. It just feels like winning another match. I'm happy, but I don't know how to react now!"

Equally as impressive as Tian's run throughout the tournament was her focus in the biggest match of all. Sleeth made history for the Sooners this week as the first woman in program history to reach the final, and came from a set down in two of her five wins to do so.


But the rookie got on top early and never let the senior back in. In all, Tian broke serve five times in seven chances. 


"She's definitely a really good player. She doesn't miss at all," Tian said. "I feel throughout the match, I'm just telling myself, I have to be more aggressive, come to the net or hitting those winners. She definitely runs around the court. She saves every single ball. She's really a brilliant player. I just [won] a few deuce points, which made a difference, I think." 


Over the course of the week in Orlando, the Pac-12 Rookie of the Year continually credited the Bruins' coaching staff and her teammates for making her feel at home in the U.S. in her exceptional first year on campus, and UCLA associate head coach Rance Brown, in his 26th year on legendary head coach Stella Sampras-Webster's staff, was equally complimentary of his player after she reached the summit.


More than two decades ago, Brown got involved in the program on the heels of having Phebus as a student—that's how the former Bruin got Tian's number to send her a good luck text on Friday night—and he said that coaching a second student-athlete to season-ending glory afforded him the opportunity to reflect on two decades of Bruin tennis. (Also on hand to watch Tian's triumph was 2022 Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady, who played for the team from 2013-14, and helped the Bruins win the 2014 team title.)


"This young lady is very humble," he said of Tian. "When you get the combination of being humble and hungry, it's a deadly combination. She’s so coachable, so nice to be around, and she's so well-liked on our team. That always doesn't come with great players. She's a true team player. She's just embraced us. It’s a pleasure being with her in whatever capacity we're in, on and off the court.


"That character, it just makes you feel good being part of something like that—when these young people understand where they're at, and now you have something like this. Like she said, it hasn't quite hit her yet and it might not all summer, but when she goes back to campus, I think [it will], to see what it's like to be a champion at UCLA. It's a special place; she's a special young lady, and we're proud to have her."

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