In a recent exclusive interview with UCLA Radio, tennis prodigy Tian Fangran, a shining star on the UCLA Women’s Tennis team in both singles and doubles, opened up about her remarkable journey from the tennis courts of Beijing to the championship stage at the NCAA. Tian’s story begins at the age of 9, when her entry into tennis was sparked by the opportunity of participating in a major tournament in Beijing with her school’s club tennis team. Her passion for the sport, combined with rigorous training and early success, catapulted her to the pinnacle of Chinese tennis by the age of 14 when she realized her potential to ascend to the next level after meeting her current coach and achieving the #1 national ranking in China.
Although Tian would never brag about it herself, she has quite an extensive resume. Throughout the interview, she showed only humility despite being a powerhouse in collegiate tennis. Her accolades include, but are not limited to, the 2023 NCAA women’s singles championship, Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Rookie of the Year, PAC-12 Rookie of the Year, and a finalist for the prestigious Honda Sport Award for Tennis.
The conversation took an introspective turn as Tian candidly discussed the challenges she faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. With no tournaments to play and training partners scarce, she said this was the most difficult time for her to find motivation to keep playing tennis. Fortunately, she made the pivotal decision to pursue a college education, majoring in psychology at UCLA. She said this is the most fun she’s ever had playing tennis. As an independent player back in China, Tian says it was difficult to make friends with other players because sooner or later you’ll end up competing against them. She loves playing as a team for the Bruins because her teammates always have her back and she knows she won’t have to play against them. Tian expressed gratitude for the rest of her support system, highlighting the unwavering backing of her parents, her decade-long coach, and the enthusiastic men’s tennis team, who she can always count on to cheer for her during home matches.
The interview then transitioned to Tian’s playing style and inspirations. Drawing parallels with tennis icon Simona Halep, Tian admires Halep’s fighting spirit on the court. She elaborated on her superstitious routines, including a specific meal plan (oatmeal and bagel for breakfast, Panera teriyaki chicken bowl and half a sandwich for lunch, and poke bowl for dinner, in case you were wondering) that she ate every day during her championship run. She also has several on-court traditions, like listening to her favorite warm-up songs, bouncing the ball five times before every serve, and only using her towel if she loses a point. Tian says she takes note of which routines correlate to big wins and will keep doing them when they work.
UCLA’s team performance in the Pac-12 and playoffs was a focal point for Tian. Even with all her individual successes, she made sure to hype up the whole team. After finishing 6th in the Pac-12, the team showed resilience, reaching the 3rd round of the playoffs before being eliminated by the 11th-seeded Iowa State. Tian expressed optimism for the upcoming season, citing new freshmen additions, a robust schedule with more home matches, and a new doubles partner whom Tian has clicked within no time.
Addressing the unpredictability of tennis, Tian discussed the challenges of planning strategies against opponents who are often unknown until the night before a match. Despite the lack of any clear rivals, she recounted facing one particular opponent, Thasaporn Naklo, from Iowa State multiple times, including a heartbreaking loss during the team’s elimination in the playoffs. This made Tian all the more nervous when the singles bracket was released and she was slated to play Naklo in the first round. Of course, these nerves were unfounded as Tian beat Naklo 6-4, 6-4, and went on to win the championship.
Tian told us that when she finally won the championship, she didn’t even realize how big of a deal it was. She said her coaches appeared to be far more excited about it than she was. It being her first year playing college tennis in the U.S., she hadn’t known how heavy of a win this was. Fortunately, upon her return to Westwood, her teammates worked together to throw her a surprise party to celebrate Tian bringing home the gold.
The interview ended with a few lighthearted questions, revealing Tian’s fondness for late-night outings to BJ’s for Pizookie Tuesdays with her team and an unexpected love for UCLA’s dining halls, even if she loses all self-control at Epicuria (she’s just like me for real :’). She says that her friends now tell her she talks like she’s from L.A., since she uses Angeleno slang like “hella” and “brutal”. As Tian reflects on her journey from China to Westwood, her impact resonates not just in her on-court triumphs but in the enduring spirit she brings to the UCLA community and beyond.