Learning a valuable lesson: How the Texas women’s tennis freshmen propelled the program to a national championship

Nathan Han, Sports Reporter

In 2019, Longhorn head coach Howard Joffe knew his incoming class of 2020 recruits could make or break the future of the Texas women’s tennis program. 

Anna and Bianca Turati, part of his first key recruiting class, had helped bring Texas back to the top of the Big 12 rankings and into the top 10 in national rankings, but the Turatis were set to graduate before the pandemic allowed them an extra year of eligibility.

Four years into his run as a Longhorn head coach, Joffe said it was an extremely important year of recruiting. He delivered, bringing in the No. 1-ranked class in the nation for a program that hadn’t had a top 25 recruiting class since 2012.

It didn’t take long for the freshman class to deliver with a national championship. However,  it also didn’t take long for that group of freshmen, including Charlotte Chavatipon, Kylie Collins, Malaika Rapolu, Peyton Stearns and Lulu Sun to learn a tough lesson early in the season.

In a grueling Feb. 8 match at the ITA Indoor Championship finals that started after midnight , the Texas women’s tennis team fell just short in a 4-3 loss to North Carolina.

Early in the match, the Tar Heels were on their heels, falling behind 3-2 to the Longhorns. North Carolina head coach Brian Kalbas even said Texas was the more talented team.

“They were playing with four freshmen in their lineup,” Kalbas said. “My mindset was, ‘Let’s just see how they can handle the pressure.’”

Then Texas dropped both of its last two singles matches in heartbreaking fashion. Joffe called the loss “a super-duper valuable lesson.”

For his talented group of freshmen, who had ample experience playing individual professional tennis but less with dual match play, the Indoor Championships were the first true introduction to the dynamic of college tennis.

“Many times over the years, I’ve had players who told me the dynamic is just different,” Joffe said. “‘When I play a tournament for myself,’ the kid tells me. ‘It’s on me. I win it, or I lose it.’ Suddenly, when I’m playing in a (college) match, when you get in a building with people screaming and shouting, the dynamic completely changes. In that respect, we are very, very inexperienced.”

But the freshmen took the lesson to heart. The Feb. 8 loss to North Carolina was the last time the national champion Longhorns would lose in the 2021 season.

It was the freshmen who consistently took care of business against lower-ranked opponents to cruise to a Big 12 regular season title.

It was the freshmen who got Texas back on top as Big 12 tournament champions, with Rapolu earning the clinching point against Oklahoma in the semifinals and cementing her place in the lineup.

Then, it was the freshmen who pushed over the hump that had plagued Texas in the past years in the Round of 16 and beyond, as the Longhorns only lost one game in four matches en route to the final.

When the only non-freshman in the singles lineup, senior Anna Turati, faltered in the finals, uncharacteristically losing both a doubles match and a singles match, the five freshmen around her picked up the slack.

In the fall of 2020, Joffe said the freshmen would be “the backbone of the program.” 

And in their first year as Longhorns, the freshmen, from Chavatipon to Collins to Rapolu to Sun to Stearns, were certainly the backbone behind Texas’s third women’s tennis NCAA championship.