On Sunday, the Oracle ITA Masters tennis tournament in Malibu, California, concluded with the women’s finals matchup, featuring UCLA’s Ena Shibahara and North Carolina’s Alle Sanford.
As reigning champion of the ITA Masters, Shibahara cruised through her first two matchups on Thursday and Friday before defeating UNC’s Sara Daavettila and Oklahoma’s Lily Miyazaki to reach back-to-back finals appearances.
Meanwhile, first-year Sanford won her first three matches in straight sets, including a victory over Duke’s Samantha Harris in the quarterfinals Pepperdine’s Mayar Ahmed in the semifinals.
In the final, the Tar Heel clearly had her hands full on Sunday with UCLA’s Shibahara. In a matchup where the tide seemed to shift like the nearby ocean, Sanford was able to emerge victorious, winning the match 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (11).
As the score indicates, the match was a close and hard-fought. In the final set, Sanford had to battle her way back and win the twelfth game to force a tiebreak. In the tiebreak, emotions poured out of each player after the long match and four-straight days of playing began to wear the athletes down. Sanford let out yells following hard points won and allowed her frustration to show after errors. Similarly, Shibahara fell to her knees in exhaustion as she failed in an attempt to hit the ball back over the net, giving Sanford a 12-11 advantage in the tiebreak.
Sanford would go on to win the next point and capture her first-ever college national tournament title. Following the match, she spoke about how she was able to perform at such a high-level on a major stage.
“It’s definitely something I’ve had to learn over the years, with my game style, in the big moments, just not to get tight,” Sanford said. “I try to just stay relaxed out there and keep smiling as the tiebreaker went on and on.”
In the arduous match, each player was nearly even in every important category of gameplay —
from first serve points won to break points saved.
Also participating in the tournament was North Carolina sophomore Sara Daavettila who played well enough to reach the quarterfinals on Friday. She defeated Abilene Christian’s Lucile Pothier and Florida International’s Andrea Lazaro in comeback fashion after dropping the first set in each match. She would go on to lose in her next matchup, though, against the eventual runner-up Ena Shibahara.