The Stanford women’s tennis team breezed through the first and second rounds of the NCAA Championships on its home courts last weekend with wins over Stony Brook and Yale. Now the Cardinal faces its true test in Athens, Ga. Fourth-seeded Stanford (20-1, 9-1 Pac-12) traveled cross-country on Monday morning in preparation for its match against 13th-seeded Northwestern today.
This will be the Cardinal’s 27th straight appearance in the NCAA round of 16, and Northwestern’s ninth straight. Ironically, Stanford will be playing Northwestern in the third round for the second consecutive year. In a match that went until early in the morning last May, the Wildcats (20-8, 10-1 Big Ten) came close to crushing then-No. 1 Stanford’s hopes at a national title earlier than expected. Senior captain Veronica Li, however, looks back on last year’s battle as something that benefited her team in the long run.
“It’s great to have a tough match in the beginning because, if you can secure a victory, it gets you ready for the rest of the tournament,” Li said. “Last year, that match helped remind us to stay tough out there and fight for each point.”
Northwestern went up 2-1 early in the match with a victory on court four after Northwestern’s Kate Turvy’s had a straight-set defeat of Stanford’s Stacey Tan. This year, Turvy will likely face sophomore Nicole Gibbs on court one, the court both players have manned for their respective teams throughout the season. Stanford also dropped the doubles point in last year’s matchup, something the players intend to change this year.
“We want to play with a lot of confidence and scare some people out there,” Li said. “We’ve definitely put in a lot of work in doubles, especially in the last month or two. Everyone seems to be really in sync and working as a team.”
Li, who has been playing No. 3 doubles with junior Natalie Dillon, commented on her partner’s play.
“She’s really competitive and it’s such a huge advantage to have someone you can trust to fight and pull out the big points,” Li said.
This year will mark Dillon’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament both as a doubles and singles player. Sophomore Kristie Ahn, a critical member of the squad who has battled injuries since last year’s NCAA tournament, hopes to make a comeback this year. At this point, though, her return still seems up in the air.
“I think we’re taking it one day at a time, but it’s a conversation between her and coaches and trainers,” Li said. “As teammates, we are doing our best to support her, but we know that she’ll be a huge part in our success and do her best to contribute in whatever role she plays.”
Li also made clear that supporting the team is what’s most important at this stage in the season. The NCAA rules for the tournament mandate that each match is the best of seven points, so if a team goes up 4-0, then the remaining matches go unfinished. Some players find this format to be disruptive and frustrating.
“You know, people are finishers and people love to be able to go out and give a win,” Li said. “For the players that do, it’s great. For the ones that don’t get to finish, it’s definitely tough to stop short because a lot of girls get better as they go. You’ve got to be ready for anything, though. You’ve got to focus on your court and play each point the same. If your team wins, it’s all for the better.”
As captain and the sole senior on the team, Li is the most experienced player on the squad. Her advice to freshman Ellen Tsay and the other players participating in their first NCAA is to enjoy the moment.
“It’s such a special experience to play for a team and to have gotten this far,” Li said. “You have to enjoy it. Winning isn’t necessarily the thing I remember the most. It’s more about the little things like playing music in the parking lot or hanging out at night in a room and watching a funny movie. My memories are mostly of spending time with the team.”
That being said, there’s no doubt the Cardinal is ready to take on the nation’s elite teams, but the players are taking it one step at a time.
“We are a team that doesn’t prepare differently for certain matches,” she said. “We try to do the best we can day-to-day, and I don’t think we’re thinking about the whole tournament, but instead the next match we are going to play.”
For right now, that focus is on getting past Northwestern. The match will take place at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex at 9 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.