Kayla Day truly went through a leap year in 2016. Santa Barbara’s teenage tennis phenom vaulted from one of many to number one and from amateur girl to professional woman.
Her progression was evident in the junior girls’ singles at three major tournaments. Day reached the round of 16 at the French Open, advanced to the semifinals at Wimbledon, and won the championship at the U.S. Open. Her sixth and final match in Flushing Meadows, New York, was a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia. With that triumph, Day secured the end-of-the-year No. 1 girls’ world ranking by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
Day turned 17 on September 28 and could continue to compete for junior championships in 2017. One of the goals she proclaimed several years ago was, in fact, to win the Wimbledon girls’ title at 17. But at a gathering last week at the Santa Barbara Tennis Club, she announced her decision to leap into the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) Tour as a professional.
“It was a tough decision,” Day said. “It was hard to pass up great colleges” — schooled by her parents and a tutor, she is a semester away from completing her high school requirements — “but tennis is something I want to wake up and do every day.”
Tennis Club pro Larry Mousouris, who guided Day through her youth career, said she’s paid her dues. “She embraces the difficult,” he said. “So many times, in so many matches, things get difficult.” Day frequently left the comforts of home, he added, to hone her game with stops from China to Eastern Europe. “She made the choice to leave paradise and go to hell and back.”
Day got a taste of competition with the pros in several minor WTA tournaments last year, and by virtue of winning the USTA Girls 18 national championship, she received a wild-card entry into the main draw of the U.S. Open. She won her first-round match before losing to No. 8–seeded Madison Keys, 6-1, 6-1. After that lesson, she mowed down the girls.
From now on, Day will be mixing it up with experienced professionals and trying to earn her share of prize money. She has been granted a wild-card entry in the Australian Open, beginning January 16 in Melbourne. “I’m really excited about my second Grand Slam tournament,” she said. She is realistic about the nature of the business. “There are not a lot of friendships on the WTA Tour,” she said. “Everybody’s kind of out for themselves.”
Day, a left-hander with a two-fisted backhand, has edged into the top 200 of the ITF women’s rankings. Mousouris calculated that most of the others will be past their primes by the time she turns 20. “There’s nobody she can’t play with already,” he said.
Mousouris, whose tennis coaching career spans four decades, has attained a unique distinction. Day is his third protégé to win a U.S. Open junior title. The others were a pair of boys’ champions from Santa Barbara High: Mike Falberg in 1980 and Tim Trigueiro in 1985.
“That’s insane,” Trigueiro said. “Even to have two champions from our little part of the world … . You’re talking Grand Slam tennis. It’s international.” Since the junior competition in New York was established in 1973, only 12 American boys have emerged victorious. Fifteen U.S. girls have won, but Day is just the fourth in the last 20 years.
“Larry always made you think bigger than a normal person,” Trigueiro said. “He opened up your possibilities.”
Falberg, Trigueiro, and Day were willing to dream big. “They were great goal setters,” Mousouris said. “They enjoyed the fight. Those kids keep me out longer [in practice sessions]. I never schedule anybody after a workout with them. They always want one more.”
Falberg pursued the sport with a perfectionistic passion. “He was so demanding of himself; it was unbelievable,” Mousouris said. The distress that overtook Falberg after he went on to college at Stanford was unfathomable. He died by suicide in 1984.
To this day, Trigueiro gets choked up at the memory. “Falberg was my idol growing up,” he said. “I took up tennis when I saw him playing at the club. He gave me so much motivation. I was at his funeral bawling. I had dreams he was still alive. He would show up in different ways. When I won that tournament [U.S. Open] the next year, I was thinking about him all the time. I was so loose. I thought I was going home after the first round.”
Trigueiro was unseeded, but he went on to upset Joey Blake in the final, 6-3, 6-2. “It was on the same court and by the same score that Kayla won this year,” Mousouris pointed out.
After competing at UCLA for two years, Trigueiro went out on the pro tour. “I was done by age 22,” he said. “I had cracked feet from the hard courts. I also got out there too late. Guys under me — [Andre] Agassi, [Jim] Courier, [Pete] Sampras — they saw the writing on the wall and turned pro.”
Trigueiro presently teaches tennis and does some real estate business in Santa Monica. He approves of Day’s decision to go pro. “You’re the No. 1 junior; you need to go now,” he said. “There are hungry people out there.”
Mousouris has high hopes for Day. “I love this kid; she really hates to lose,” he said. “She’s going to shake hands and show that million-dollar smile, but she’s going to go to her room and be angry.”
Off the courts, Day has a cheerful demeanor. She is a Santa Barbara girl who likes to take her dogs for a walk on the beach. She is close to her parents, Dana and Andrew. “I try to stay in touch with what’s going on in their lives,” Mousouris said. “I’d say Kayla is essentially pretty happy.”
And ready to enter an unfriendly world.
GAME OF THE WEEK
1/7: College Basketball: Biola at Westmont It is possibly the most feverish small-college basketball rivalry in Southern California. Because Biola will be moving out of the NAIA into NCAA Division II next year, Saturday’s double-header will be the last time Westmont hosts the Eagles with their standings in the Golden State Athletic Conference at stake. Westmont’s men entered the New Year with records of 13-1 overall and 2-0 in the GSAC. Biola, which was ranked No. 1 in the NAIA last month, was 14-1 and 0-1 after being upset by William Jessup in its conference opener. Westmont leads the all-time series, 58-52. The Warrior women (12-1, 2-0), ranked No. 4 nationally, will also get a test from Biola (10-3, 1-0). Their series lead is 27-11. Women: 5:30pm; Men: 7:30pm. Murchison Gym, Westmont College, 955 La Paz Rd. Free-$6. Call 565-6010.