At the 2016 US Open in Flushing Meadows, formidable USA Futures Kayla Day and Caroline Dolehide proved an impressive tandem in the Junior Girls Doubles competition. Looking nearly invincible as a wild card entry, they stormed through the bottom half of the draw by dropping only one set en route to the final. At the same time, a young team of UCLA Bruins was making waves of their own in the top half, toppling the #1 seed in their first match and winning with conviction throughout. Jada Hart and Ena Shibahara, both college freshmen and themselves a wild card team, were unquestionably ready for the US Open spotlight. After splitting the first two sets in an all American final opposite Day/Dolehide, the Bruin tandem pushed the accelerator in overtime to grasp victory in a decisive 13-11 tiebreak.
Not surprisingly, the Hart/Shibahara ticket is a hot commodity on the doubles court. At 14-4, their record has but a handful of blemishes and twice as many wins as any other UCLA Women’s team. It would seem as though these two competitors are poised to dominate PAC-12 doubles for another three years, but head coach Stella Sampras-Webster has quite a dilemma on her hands – Shibahara is a talented singles player with eyes on pro ranks, and Hart is a bundle of potential at both singles and doubles (she owns seven additional doubles wins teammate Terri Fleming).
Often seen on court together at the LA Tennis Center at UCLA, Hart and Shibahara have taken similar journeys to their Westwood campus. “I’ve always had my mind set on tennis, and being a professional player,” says Shibahara, describing tennis as a “family sport” she learned primarily from her father, who played in Japan before coming to the United States. In fact, her father and two brothers have been instrumental in shaping her approach and competitiveness. Having realized Ena’s potential, “my dad and brothers stuck with the game to help me practice,” she says.
In middle school, Jada Hart dabbled in track & field and softball before deciding on tennis as her sport – and perhaps, her career – of choice. Like Shibahara, Hart developed her interest in the game while learning from her father, who taught the game to Jada and her siblings. “But I was the one who really took to it,” she recalls.
Both athletes excelled at the USTA Training Center in Carson, benefiting from SoCal coaches and preparing both women for junior competition. Now at UCLA, they play under the tutelage of Sampras-Webster, a UCLA alum now in her 16th year as head coach. “She can pick me up on struggle days,” says Shibahara of Sampras-Webster. “She knows just what to say.” Hart is in full agreement, adding that the coach “shares her experience as a student/athlete, and helps me grow as a person and a player.”
That growth is evident in both young Bruins. Shibahara is twice a PAC-12 Player of the Week, with Hart receiving the honors as well. Combining both singles and doubles, they are responsible for 67 of UCLA’s 124 match wins (thru March 23), an impressive 54 percent of the team’s triumphs.
All that remains is the destiny of these two phenoms, but one thing is for sure – the US Open hasn’t seen the last of Ena Shibahara and Jada Hart.
The UCLA Bruins return to Westwood on Friday, April 7 against Colorado at 1:30pm.