The No. 11 Stanford men’s tennis team once again encountered heartbreak in the quarterfinals of the NCAA team tournament this weekend, losing 4-0 Sunday to No. 3 Virginia after defeating No. 6 Kentucky 4-1 in the round of 16 on Friday.
The loss against Virginia (28-1, 11-0 ACC) was the second time in as many years the Cardinal (20-9, 5-2 Pac-12) has fallen against the Cavaliers in the final eight, with a run to the quarterfinals last year being brought to an abrupt end in a 4-3 decision against the eventual finalists.
The Cardinal entered the match against Kentucky (28-6, 11-0 SEC) as nominal underdogs seemingly peaking at just the right time, after emphatic victories over Sacramento State and Santa Clara in earlier rounds of the tournament. The Cardinal was also looking to replicate the upset at Kentucky, when the Card won 4-1 at the National Team Indoor Championships in February.
“Beating [Kentucky] at indoors certainly gave us plenty of confidence going into the match that, if we had a complete team effort, we could get the job done,” said senior Bradley Klahn.
The Cardinal, however, fell behind quickly, losing the doubles point with the pairings of senior Ryan Thacher with junior Denis Lin and junior Matt Kandath with sophomore Jamin Ball both losing 8-2.
“We got our tails whipped in the doubles,” Klahn said. “But when we came out after the break for singles, I could see it in everyone’s eyes that we were going to turn the match around.”
The Cardinal did just that, picking up the first set in all six singles matches.
“There was never any doubt in our team that we could come out with four points,” Klahn said. “Those first 30 minutes of singles really set the tone for the match, reversing any momentum Kentucky generated from the doubles.”
The Wildcats fought back, winning the second set in four of the matchups, but Klahn, playing at the No. 1 position, and Thacher, playing No. 2, triumphed 6-1, 6-2 and 6-1, 7-5 respectively to put the Cardinal ahead 2-1.
Sophomore Daniel Ho extended Stanford’s lead further with a 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 victory on court five, before freshman John Morrissey clinched the win on court four with a 6-1, 3-6, 5-4 triumph. Morrissey’s win, which was marked by several dramatic shifts in momentum, concluded when a series of code violations assessed against his opponent culminated in a default with Morrissey serving on match point.
“Friday’s performance was one of the best I have seen all season and in my four years at [Stanford] as far as the team coming together, showing grit and determination and playing well at the right time,” Klahn said. “[Kentucky] certainly didn’t make it easy for us, but I was really proud of our team for sticking with our game plan and staying tough down the stretch.”
Last year’s quarterfinal defeat against Virginia — as well as a 4-1 loss at the Indoors in February — quickly came to mind for the Cardinal as it prepared for Sunday’s match against the Cavaliers, who were entering their eighth straight NCAA tournament quarterfinal.
“For all of us who were involved in last year’s match, we know how close we came to pulling off the win, and every one of us believed we could and should have won that match,” Klahn said beforehand. “Similarly, we played them very tough this year on their home courts, and that gives us a lot of confidence.”
The Cardinal started quicker in the doubles than against Kentucky, with Klahn and Morrissey triumphing 8-5 out of the No. 2 position, but losses by the other two pairings meant that the Cavaliers were able to clinch the doubles point.
Unlike Friday’s match, the Cardinal struggled to reassert itself in the singles component and suffered a collapse on the middle courts. Kandath, Morrissey and Ho all lost in straight sets, allowing the Cavaliers to claim victory before the Cardinal could get onto the scoreboard. Freshman Robert Stineman, who was leading 6-4, 2-1 on court six when his match was abandoned, was the only Stanford player to win a set.
The loss brings the Cardinal’s team season to a close, marking the fourth straight year that Stanford has surpassed 20 wins but also extending a relative drought in the NCAA tournament. Despite holding a record 18 national championships and an all-time 103-18 postseason record, the Cardinal has failed to progress beyond the quarterfinals since 2003 and last lifted the tournament trophy in 2000.
Nevertheless, the season isn’t over yet for Klahn and Thacher. Both seniors will participate in the NCAA singles championships as at-large bids and will combine as the No. 4 pairing in the doubles tournament.
Both competitions will begin on May 23 in Athens, Ga.