Kayla Day brought enough competitive fire to the Santa Barbara Tennis Club on Friday to light up every candle on her birthday cake.
Day, who will turn 21 on Monday, shrugged off a toe injury and refused to let 18-year-old UCSB freshman Camille Kiss get a foothold while winning the women’s singles championship at the $25,000 Central Coast Home Health and Hospice Women’s Pro Invitational.
“I’ll probably just celebrate on Monday with a nice night with my friends,” said Day, who was 9 when she took her first lessons at the club from Larry Mousouris. “It felt really good to be able to compete again even if it was a small event.
“I’ve played about a thousand matches over there on court 8, and probably about a hundred on this one. I feel comfortable here.”
Day swept Kiss 6-1, 6-2 on Friday for her fifth singles win in as many matches this week. She also teamed with her WTA partner, Sophia Whittle, to capture the doubles title with a 6-2, 7-5 victory over fellow pros Lorraine Guillermo and Shatoo Mohamad.
She hadn’t played in a tournament since late February when she won two of three singles matches at the International Tennis Federation/USTA event in Las Vegas. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled her quest of rebuilding a WTA ranking that had risen as high as 122 in 2017.
“It’s been nice being home, but I’m definitely sick of it,” Day said. “I’ve been traveling the world every week since I was 12 of 13, so it’s kind of crazy to be in one place for so long.
“At first it was nice, but I’m definitely ready to get going again.”
She’s submitted wild-card entries for several upcoming pro events in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia.
“I’ve won that tournament in Macon, Ga., so going there would definitely bring back some good memories,” she said.
Day’s workouts at the Santa Barbara Tennis Club have been a productive stroll down memory lane. The seven-month break allowed her to strengthen a forehand which scored plenty of winners on Friday.
“Last year I was really struggling with that,” she said. “I worked really hard on it and I’m really liking how it’s turning out.
“This break, there were some good aspects to it. I had a lot of time to work on my game and figure out the way I want to be playing, moving forward.”
Kiss, a five-star recruit that UCSB plucked out of Redlands, had upset Whittle 6-1, 6-3 in Thursday’s semifinals. She also swept another WTA pro, Lorraine Guillermo, during pool play.
“If Kayla comes off her game even that much,” Mousouris said, indicating an inch with his fingers, “and gives that girl time to hit that forehand, it’s going to be hard…You don’t know where it’s going, and it’s so hard and flat.
“Come off just 5-or-6% and give that girl just that much more time, and that many more looks with her forehand, and some of those games that were close could’ve started going the other way.”
Kiss played clean through the first three games, holding her first service opportunity. But Day’s unrelenting pressure forced Kiss into three unforced errors that broke her next serve, and the birthday girl never looked back.
“She can hit winners from pretty much anywhere on the court so it was a really good test for me,” Day said. “I had to stay focused the entire match.
“If I let my guard down for a second, she was going to take advantage of that.”
Kiss also trailed throughout the entire second set. She did come close to earning a service break which would’ve pulled her even at 2-2, but Day pulled out one of the day’s longest games and continued on her way.
She said it’s helped to have Mousouris back in her court, full-time, for the last year.
“It’s been such a help for me, especially mentally,” Day said, “just going back to where I came from and really discovering my love for the game again, and being around someone who knows me so well… We work well together.”
She burst onto the national scene in 2016 when she was just turning 17. She won a match in the main draw at the U.S. Open and followed that up by capturing the U.S. Junior Open two weeks later.
She also went three rounds at the 2017 BNP Paribas Open, beating Australian Open semifinalist Mirjana Lučić-Baroni along the way. But several injuries and a lingering bout of mononucleosis set her back the last two years.
“It was a tough couple of years for me, especially being so young on the tour,” Day said. “It was definitely a hard transition because when I first started in the pros, I was doing really well. And then I kind of feel like I got a reality check.
“I didn’t really know how to deal with it in the best way possible. But I feel good now. It feels great to be healthy and be able to compete.”
She’s especially learned how to deal with the nicks and pains of a pro athlete. She hurt her toe the night before Thursday’s semifinal match against Uzbekistan’s Shakhnoza Khatamova, a sophomore transfer at UCSB who played No. 1 singles for San Diego State last year.
“I ran my door over my pinkie toe and it just blistered up so badly,” said Day, who persevered for a 6-3, 1-6, 6-1 win. “I was in so much pain. Playing her, I didn’t even know if I was going to finish the match.
“But I actually played a really good third set, and it’s been doing better ever since… It’s to a point where I don’t feel it when I’m playing because I’m so focused.”
And now she’s looking to get back on the road.