Once Kayla Day found her stroke in tennis, there was no turning back. The Santa Barbara native was 7 years old when she entered a one-week clinic at the Knowlwood Tennis Club. She found out that there was a two-month competition among young players that rewarded dedication: first prize to whoever played the most sets. “I spent the whole summer there,” she said. “I played like 180 sets.” And she took home her first trophy.
Day is now 16, and in the junior tennis rankings, she is the No. 1 girl in the United States and No. 6 in the world. She has so far fulfilled the ambitions she wrote down at the request of Larry Mousouris, the teaching pro at the Santa Barbara Tennis Club:
—No. 1 U.S. ranking in the 12, 14, and 16 age groups.
The rest is yet to come:
—Win the Wimbledon junior title at 17.
—From 20 to 32, be No. 1 in the world.
—Retire at 33 to recreational tennis.
—At 52, play on the Senior Pro Tour … “and that will be the end of my tennis dream.”
“He was very happy with that letter,” Day said.
“I don’t ask a lot unless I sense something inside,” said Mousouris, who coached Day in her early years on the Southern California tournament circuit. “Did she mean that? Most players are not giving everything they’ve got. She is very special.”
Day progressed steadily to national and international tournaments. She has played at the women’s level to gain a world ranking in the top 500 at No. 437.
As a lefthander, along the lines of Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, Day said her strength is to attack with her forehand. “Lefties’ balls spin differently,” she said.
She began this year as one of four rising stars invited to train alongside the U.S. Federation Cup team — including Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, and CoCo Vandeweghe — before the Americans faced Poland at Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i.
The past three months kept Day on the go. In early April, she won a three-set final over longtime rival Claire Liu, a top 16-year-old from Thousand Oaks, to claim the International Spring Championship at the StubHub USTA Center in Carson; she reached the semifinals of the ITF Junior Masters in Chengdu, China; she made it to the finals of her first professional tournament in Naples, Florida; and in her debut at the French Open Juniors, she advanced to the round of 16.
“It was cloudy, cold, and wet,” Day said recently during a brief stay in Santa Barbara. The handle of her tennis racket was stained by the red clay of the Paris courts.
Because of her travels, often accompanied by one or both of her parents, Andrew and Dana, Kayla has been doing her schoolwork with tutors and online since the 7th grade. It’s frustrating, she said, to be in a place where she cannot connect with the Internet.
One such place was China, but Day was able to expand her interest in world cuisine there. “They served chicken feet on a bed of rice,” she said. “Another dish turned out to be some kind of intestines. It was pretty good.”
During her breaks at home, Day said, “I do the usual things, hang out with friends and our dogs.” The family’s dogs are named after tennis players: Rafael and Garbine. Dana Day presciently chose the latter name before Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza made headlines by upsetting Serena Williams in the French Open women’s final.
Day is off to England this week, preparing for her second appearance at Wimbledon. In her first match at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club a year ago, she scored a 7-6, 6-3 victory over Tessah Andrianjafitrimo of France. That performance impressed Mike Gennette, the Cal Lutheran men’s coach, who has worked with Day and Liu. “She is one of the strongest mental competitors out there,” Gennette told Southern California Tennis News. “She played a tough competitor, but she had the mental edge. After she won the first set in a tie-break, you could see her confidence grow. She’s a lefty and has a big serve, which turned out to be the most dominant stroke in the match.”
Day lost a close match in the second round at last year’s Wimbledon, and she figures to be one of the top-seeded junior girls on the grass courts this year. Their competition will commence on Saturday, July 2.
However this tournament comes out for her, the next big goal on Day’s heady list is winning the Wimbledon title in 2017. But she’ll want it out of her head when she takes the court.
“I try not to think about my goals,” she said. “Every day, I want to improve as much as I can.”
OLYMPIC TRIALS: One of Santa Barbara’s greatest contributions to the Olympic Games was UCSB grad Jason Lezak, who electrified the world with his finishing sprint in the men’s 4x100 swim relay in 2008 at Beijing. Sixteen past and present Gaucho swimmers are competing in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials this week in Omaha, Nebraska. The highest finish in the first three days was Andrea Ward’s 41st place (out of 134 starters) in the women’s 100 butterfly. Wade Allen, a 2015 graduate, will compete in three men’s events, the 50 and 100 freestyles and the 100 butterfly.
The U.S. Olympic Team Trials in track-and-field get underway Friday, July 1, at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. Competing in the decathlon Saturday and Sunday will be Thomas FitzSimons Jr. of the Santa Barbara Track Club (SBTC). He placed fourth in the national championships last year, but with the likes of world record holder Ashton Eaton, the defending Olympic champion, gunning for the top three spots to make the team in Rio de Janeiro, a top-10 finish would be a fine accomplishment for FitzSimons.
UCSB grad Barbara Nwaba, the SBTC’s most decorated athlete, has Rio in her sights. She is the defending national champion in the heptathlon and has the highest score, 6,500 points, of all the contenders in the trials. Also representing the SBTC in the hep will be Lindsay Lettow and Lindsay Schwartz. Their competition will take place July 9-10, the last two days of the meet.