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No. 5 Stanford women’s tennis opens dual-meet season today vs. UC-Davis

The No. 5 Stanford women’s tennis team reappears on the courts today in the season opener against UC-Davis. The small but determined eight-girl squad looks for redemption after losing to USC in last year’s NCAA quarterfinals in May. The new journey begins under the leadership of coach Lele Forood, senior captain Natalie Dillon and junior captains Nicole Gibbs and Kristie Ahn.

Junior Nicole Gibbs hopes to build off a very successful 2012 season when the No. 5 Card returns to the court this week (STANFORD DAILY FILE PHOTO)

Junior Nicole Gibbs hopes to build off a very successful 2012 season when the No. 5 Card returns to the court this week (STANFORD DAILY FILE PHOTO)

The Cardinal lost Mallory Burdette, who opted to forgo her senior year and enter the pro circuit in September after losing to Maria Sharapova in the third round of the US Open. Despite her absence, Stanford still looks strong with several key players coming back.

Gibbs will return to play court one. Like Burdette, she also has experience against top-five players, including Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova. Gibbs just returned from the qualifiers of the Australian Open, and despite briefly missing Stanford practices, sees the benefit in playing professional tournaments.

“I find the two completely complementary to each other,” Gibbs said. “It’s not a balancing act for me when I’m on tour playing matches for my personal career. It’s helping my level of play for when I’m here.”

Academically, though, Gibbs admits it can be difficult. As an Economics major taking a very heavy workload this quarter, she acknowledges the focus necessary to successfully handle all her endeavors. But it’s not only herself who she has to worry about. The trio of Gibbs, Ahn and Dillon will be responsible for maintaining balance within the team.

“It’s our job to take care of the nitty gritties, dot the I’s and cross the T’s,” Ahn said. “We also make an effort to set a precedent, always giving 100 percent whether we’re on the court or in the gym. We also do our best to communicate with the coaches as much as possible so we’re all on the same page.”

Ahn will finally be a healthy starter again after missing almost all of last season with injuries. Her return is huge for the already small Stanford squad.

“I feel better than I did coming into Stanford as a freshman,” she asserted. “I put in my time at the gym when I was still limited on the court, and I think it’s really paid off.”

In addition to the returning Gibbs, Ahn, and Dillon, the Cardinal will return sophomore Ellen Tsay, junior Amelia Herring and senior Stacey Tan.

It has also welcomed two new members, freshmen Krista Hardebeck and Lindsey Kostas. Hardebeck, a No. 1 recruit who has ranked inside the top-300 on the pro circuit, will enter the season ranked an astounding No. 2 in the country.

“[Hardebeck] is a vibrant personality and adds so much to our team dynamic on the personal side,” Gibbs said. “She’s also an exceptional college tennis player and had a very illustrious junior and pro circuit career. She’s definitely the real deal.”

For Hardebeck, Stanford was an easy choice. It was always her dream school because her long time coach, Debbie Graham, is a Stanford alumna who actually captured a NCAA singles title as a sophomore in 1990. Playing for a team has definitely been a transition for Hardebeck, but something she views as a positive.

“Depending on other people and having other people rely on you is something you have to get used to,” she said. “It’s a growing experience but definitely a beneficial one.”

Hardebeck and Kostas actually were doubles partners when they were 12 and 13 years old. Both from southern California, they played in the same section and knew each other well.

“We stopped playing the same tournaments though around sophomore year,” Hardebeck said. “We reconnected when we found out we were both going to be freshmen at Stanford.”

A Kostas/Hardebeck doubles team isn’t in the cards for the Cardinal this year though, as Gibbs and Ahn will lead the line up at No. 1, Tan and Tsay at No. 2, and Dillon and Hardebeck at No. 3.

The singles line up is still not completely cemented, but fans can be sure to see a prepared and determined Stanford team on Thursday.

“I think our team feels we have something to prove out there,” Ahn said. “There will definitely be a lot of desire and fire on the court. We have some pretty animated tennis players who love to get the crowd engaged.”

Gibbs hopes that kicking off the season with a win against UC-Davis will increase the team’s confidence.

“It’s early in the year to talk about a team identity because we haven’t seen how we play together yet,” she acknowledged. “We have a certain level of intensity and a good work ethic on our team, and we’ve reformed ourselves to make up for [Burdette’s] absence. I think we look really good.”

Though UC-Davis typically isn’t a powerhouse team, the Cardinal has some huge matches quickly approaching. In fact, Stanford will travel to Gainesville to face long time rival and No. 1 ranked University of Florida on Feb. 24. The team will also travel to face southern California foes No. 2 UCLA and No. 4 USC in March.

The Cardinal will first attempt to defeat the Aggies on Thursday at 3 p.m. at the Taube Family Tennis Courts.

Contact Chrissy Jones at chrissyj@stanford.edu