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Hardebeck fights back from brink to clinch upset of No. 1 Florida

With every player and coach from both sides watching on, freshman Krista Hardebeck battled back from the brink of defeat for a miraculous comeback victory to clinch No. 12 Stanford women’s tennis’ upset of the top-ranked Florida Gators in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament on Monday.

Hardebeck trailed 6-7, 1-5, with Stanford looking for a win from either the freshman or sophomore Ellen Tsay on Court No. 5 to clinch the match. Against all odds, Hardebeck battled back, breaking Florida’s Alexandra Cercone twice in a row to even the set at 5-5. Hardebeck eventually won the set in a tiebreak.

Freshman Krista Hardebeck (above) fought back from the edge of defeat to clinch (DAVID ELKINSON/StanfordPhoto.com)

Freshman Krista Hardebeck (above) fought back from the edge of defeat to clinch Stanford’s win over No. 1 Florida and give the Cardinal a berth in today’s NCAA Final. (DAVID ELKINSON/StanfordPhoto.com)

Early in Hardebeck’s third set, Florida tied the overall match 3-3 with a win on Court No. 5, putting Hardebeck’s Court No. 3 on center stage. And Hardebeck shined in the spotlight, dominating the third set en route to a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory. When the final point ended, Hardebeck threw her hands in the air and met the rush of teammates mobbing her to start the celebration after a grueling four-and-a-half-hour match.

Florida is the third consecutive top-five team that Stanford has upset to get to the finals after wins over No. 5 Southern California (4-3) and No. 4 Georgia (4-1) over the weekend. The Cardinal will face No. 3 Texas A&M for the NCAA title today at 3 p.m.

The road to the NCAA Championship seems to go through the Florida Gators every year. In 2010, Stanford defeated the Gators for its 16th NCAA championship. The year after, the Gators returned the favor, ending Stanford’s 184-match home winning streak and taking the title 4-3.

This year, the matchup took place in the Final Four, with both teams fighting to earn a spot in the NCAA Final.

Despite playing its third match in four days, Stanford got off to a strong start. The top tandem of junior Nicole Gibbs and junior Kristie Ahn got ahead in its doubles match early and continued to widen the gap. Gibbs and Ahn were first off the court with an 8-3 victory.

At the second spot, Tsay and senior Stacey Tan ended with an equally dominant 8-3 victory. The duo broke Florida’s serve at 6-3 to put the match out of reach, closing it out on a serve.

Singles proved to be a very mixed bag early on. Gibbs, Ahn and Dillon all got off to fantastic starts. Gibbs’ opponent, No. 1 Lauren Embree, didn’t score a single game in the first set, while Ahn and Dillon lost only one game each.

But Tsay and Tan both struggled in their first sets, with neither winning more than two games.

Gibbs was first done with a 6-0, 6-1 victory over Embree. Continuing Stanford’s trend of dominant juniors, Ahn earned Stanford’s third point of the day with a 6-1, 6-4 victory, putting the Cardinal just one win away from the final.

That’s when Florida began its slow climb back. Tan fell first, losing 6-1, 6-3 for the Gators’ first point of the day. Dillon lost next; after winning her first set in dominant fashion, she quickly dropped her next two for a 1-6, 6-1, 6-0 loss.

With Hardebeck appearing to be next in line to fall, Tsay looked to be the last hope for Stanford, at that point tied 2-6, 6-3, 2-2 in the third.

Tsay and her opponent, junior Olivia Janowicz, continued holding serve until Tsay’s service game at 4-5. Janowicz broke Tsay, with the help of two Tsay double faults and a final shot going too long.

Stanford and Florida were tied at 3-3.

But Hardebeck, who had clinched five previous matches for the Cardinal — including Stanford’s quarterfinal win over Georgia on Sunday — before the Final Four, was clawing her way back.

Leading Stanford with 33 wins on the year, Hardebeck was a reliable player to have in this pressure-packed moment.

In the decisive third set, Hardebeck and her opponent both held serve until 3-3. Hardebeck had a chance for a break at 30-40 before hitting her backhand long. Hardebeck quickly atoned for that mistake, taking the next two points to get the crucial break and the next two games to take the match.

Stanford faces No. 3 Texas A&M, which defeated No. 4 UCLA 4-3 in dramatic fashion as well on Monday evening, today for the NCAA title. Stanford, which has not yet won an NCAA team title in the 2012-13 athletic year, is looking to extend its 36-year streak of winning at least one NCAA title. Today’s final is Stanford’s best remaining opportunity.

Stanford and Texas A&M last met in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, with Stanford winning 4-1. Today’s final will start with doubles at 3 p.m.

Contact Will Seaton at wseaton ‘at’ stanford.edu.