Tennis professional Kayla Day has traveled the world the last four years, but she had to come to her hometown of Santa Barbara to find a tournament during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Day has been playing all week in the Women’s Pro Invitational, a $25,000 event being held on the Santa Barbara Tennis Club courts where she grew up.
She’ll face Irvine’s Anne Christine Lutkemeyer in today’s 11:30 a.m. singles semifinals, with the final set for Friday at 11 a.m. Nipomo’s Sophia Whittle, Day’s WTA doubles partner, will play UCSB freshman Camille Kiss in today’s other semifinal at 10 a.m. Lutkenmeyer and Kiss are two of the nation’s top-ranked juniors.
“It’s kind of incredible how it all came together,” said Larry Mousouris, who has been managing Day’s career full-time for the last two seasons. “The community really stepped up to help us put this on.”
Day, the 2016 U.S. Junior Open champion, was making a comeback from injuries and illness when the coronavirus hit last March. She had won five of seven singles matches in her last two International Tennis Federation/USTA events when play was halted.
“She got some good results in Rancho Santa Fe, won the doubles, and was playing really well when they shut the whole thing down,” Mousouris said. “The last tournament she played was in Las Vegas. And then just two days later, they canceled the BNP (Paribas Open).”
Day, who had one of her best weeks as a pro when she advanced to the third round of the 2017 BNP, wound up detouring from Indian Wells to Santa Barbara. Her Women’s Tennis Association ranking, which was as high as 122 in June of 2017, was at 468 when the pro tour was canceled.
“She practiced here until the club closed, and then we found some private courts,” Mousouris said. “Then they had some matches at the Newport Beach Country Club which were televised by ESPN. We literally played 40 matches in 2½ months, staying at a member’s house a mile away.
“We’d play two matches a day and got paid a little bit, but there were no ranking points involved.”
They decided to return home again when the prize money was cut in half.
“She was making that much just giving lessons,” Mousouris said.
Jerry Jordano of Central Coast Home Health and Hospice helped put Day back into competitive play by proposing the invitational at the Santa Barbara Tennis Club.
“He asked me, ‘What if I gave $10,000?’ … and I said, ‘That sounds good!’” Mousouris said. “Someone else at the club gave $5,000, and then others started giving, too. We ended up with more than $26,000.
“We think it’s the biggest purse ever given at a tournament in Santa Barbara.”
The tournament began Monday with round-robin play which pitted eight players in two groups. Day signed up along with WTA pros Whittle, Lorraine Guillermo and Shatoo Mohamad.
Three of UCSB’s top incoming recruits also entered the singles: Kiss, fellow freshman Marta Gonzalez Baalbe of Spain, and sophomore Shakhnoza Khatamova of Uzbekistan, a transfer from San Diego State.
Day capped her 3-0 run through round-robin play with a 6-3, 1-6, 6-1 win over Khatamova, who was the Aztecs’ No. 1 player last year while winning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors.
“We’ve done some training with UCSB’s coach, Simon Thibodeau, and he got some of his players involved,” Mousouris said. “They’re all really good and putting it on the line. They’re really nice girls and he’s done a good job with that group.”
Day and Whittle will also play doubles together at 2:30 p.m. today against UCSB’s Baalbe and Kira Reuter, a transfer from Texas Tech by way of Cambridge, England.
Although the event is closed to the public, club members have been able to catch some of the action.
“This is Kayla’s home club, so it’s good for the people here to be able to see her do her thing,” Mousouris said. “She’s doing quite well and, in a nutshell, is having fun.”