It was indeed a sweet moment enjoyed by a crowd not used to seeing this level of professional tennis, or the caliber of play coming from players like current pros Day and Whittle. In fact, the Central Coast Pro Tennis Open is the only $50,000 level or above USTA Pro Circuit tournament in all of the USTA Southern California Section.
While Santa Barbara has had its share of champions over the years, the small farming town of Nipomo just north of Santa Maria with a population just under 20,000 has never produced a player of Whittle’s caliber.
“I hit with a lot of guys growing up,” said Whittle, who won the ITA All-American at Riviera Country Club after last year’s CCPTO and starred for Gonzaga University for four seasons. “There were a couple of girls who were older than me that I would hit with, but other than that I would have to go down to L.A. to tournaments every weekend.”
Whittle’s older brother Eli was also an able hitting partner, although more so in recent years.
“We practiced a little bit, but we would get mad at each other,” Sophie said. “He would get mad when I would say sorry for not hitting it right to him and he would say don’t do that. I think I’ve hit with him more since I started college. Now, he practices with me all the time.”
Eli has been out all week supporting Sophie, as have their parents Ken and Kristie Whittle.
Eli was a top SoCal junior and won The Ojai 16s before going on to play at UC Davis.
After a first-round loss in singles and a second-round defeat in doubles, Whittle is next headed to train Carson next week with USTA National coaches Andy Gerst, Chris Tontz and Matt Cloer. She will then play in the Oracle Open Pro Series event in Claremont in two weeks followed by USTA Pro Circuit events in Waco and Tyler, Texas, and Las Vegas, and vying for a valuable Australian Open wild card given to the player with the most points accumulated during those tournaments.
After winning the All-American, Whittle became the No. 1 player in the country. She paused for a few seconds and asked what it meant to win a college Grand Slam tournament.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” she said. “I just think it opened a lot of opportunities for me. I got to get into the national events and my ranking was high and I got to play a lot of good teams’ best players who had high rankings. I had a lot of competition.”
Whittle is coached by former Cal Poly coach Hugh Bream and he said now the competition is elite pro players trying to make the jump to the WTA Tour.
“The level of competition is great and she loves that,” Bream told local TV station KSBY during the week. “Little lapses in focus that you might have gotten away with in college, you don’t get away with anymore, but she’s a worker, and she’s a learner.”
Whittle is ready to take on her first full season being a pro, and seeing how far she can go.
She won’t miss the winters in Spokane. “It will be nice to not worry about studying for a test or going to class,” she said. “Plus I’ll never be that pale again.”