W. Tennis: Stanford begins NCAAs eyeing third straight finals appearance

It’s finally May Madness in the world of college tennis, and the Stanford women’s team is looking to avenge its heartbreaking loss in last year’s NCAA championship match with a victory this year. The players have asserted time and time again that hoisting the trophy is their main goal, and this weekend they begin their quest for the title.

“The ultimate goal is definitely to win NCAAs,” said junior Mallory Burdette. “Our first stepping stone this year was the rematch against Florida in February, and once we overcame that hurdle, we focused on winning the Pac-12 title. Now that we are Pac-12 co-champions, all of our focus has shifted to the NCAA tournament.”

Sophomore Nicole Gibbs (above) will look to build on her success as Pac-12 singles champion when Stanford kicks off its NCAA tournament run this weekend on the Farm. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

It’s been a successful year for No. 5 Stanford (18-1, 9-1 Pac-12), which is seeded No. 4 in the 64-team tournament. The first and second rounds are held this weekend at 16 different campus sites, one of those being the Farm. The last four rounds, including the championship, will be played May 17-28 at the Dan Magill Tennis Center in Athens, Ga.

Stanford has had a short break since its appearance in Ojai, in which the Cardinal swept Washington State 7-0 in the final regular season match and followed that with strong individual showings at the Pac-12 tournament. Stanford sophomore Nicole Gibbs, who has manned court one for the Cardinal all season, took the Pac-12 singles championship, and Gibbs, along with Burdette, made it all the way to the doubles final before falling to USC’s pairing of Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria 6-4, 6-4.

“[Nicole] and I had several confidence-building matches throughout the tournament,” Burdette said. “Even though we didn’t pull through in the finals, we learned a lot about USC’s No. 1 team, and I think we will know exactly what to expect from them next time. The Pac-12 tournament is also really tough in that we play up to three matches in one day, but it’s great preparation for NCAAs where we will also be playing a lot of tennis over a two-week period.”

Although the anticipation is intensifying, the time off between Pac-12s and NCAAs has actually benefitted Stanford’s small, eight-person squad.

“We knew that we were going to have a smaller team this year,” Burdette said. “And it definitely has put more pressure on each of us to remain healthy and to stay on top of our game. It’s that time of the season where parts of my body are breaking down, and it was really important that I took a few days off after playing so many matches in a short period of time.”

The few days allowed the Cardinal to renew and refocus before the “Big Dance,” as Burdette put it.

“I personally needed to recharge, fine-tune my game and mentally prepare for the NCAAs,” said freshman Ellen Tsay. “And, of course, to build up for the excitement and suspense of the biggest event of the year.”

“We have been pushing really hard for shorter periods of time,” Burdette added. “I think we’ve had our best practices of the year in the past week or so. The bottom line is that we really need contributions from every person in order to reach our goal of bringing home another title.”

The Cardinal faces Stony Brook (14-7) on Friday in the first round. Led by junior Nini Lagvilava and freshman Polina Movchan, Stony Brook won its first American East tournament title over Maryland-Baltimore County 4-2, ensuring its bid to NCAAs. This Friday will be the first time the two teams meet.

If Stanford were to defeat Stony Brook, it would face the winner of No. 41 St. Mary’s and No. 28 Yale in the second round on Saturday. If Stanford can get past these two matches, it will travel to Athens, where it could face its first seeded opponent of the tournament, No. 13 Northwestern, in the third round. If seeds hold, Stanford would square off with its Pac-12 co-champion, fifth-seeded USC.

Both Friday and Saturday are expected to be extremely warm days, but the Stanford players said the weather should help them prepare for the next few rounds.

“I am actually really happy that it is going to be really hot this weekend because it will be great preparation for the Southern heat that we will surely deal with in Athens if we make it,” Burdette said. “I have done a few sessions of Bikram yoga in order to prepare for the heat.”

The action begins when Yale and Saint Mary’s face off at 11 a.m. at Taube Family Tennis Center on Friday, followed by the Stanford-Stony Brook match at 2 p.m. The winners of these two matches will face off at 3 p.m on Saturday.