Beyda: Three women’s tennis players made the Card’s dream a reality
Back in March, I wrote that college tennis is the ultimate intersection of team and individual sports. That statement has never felt more true.
Tuesday night, Cardinal women’s tennis pulled off the ultimate team accomplishment by winning its 17th national championship, keeping alive a 36-year NCAA title streak for Stanford’s athletics. It upset four top-five teams in the final rounds of the tournament, including No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Texas A&M in the semis and finals, staying tough through three 4-3 wins over that stretch. And it may have just won Stanford a 19th straight Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup in the process.
But make no mistake; the Cardinal’s title run was so interesting because of the individuals on courts one, two and three.
It started with freshman Krista Hardebeck on Monday night. Stanford needed to win one of its two remaining singles matches against the Gators to advance to the finals, and Hardebeck was up against the wall. Her opponent, Alexandra Cercone, was just pushing the ball back and waiting for the young Hardebeck to make a mistake; she eked out a first-set tiebreak with that strategy. Hardebeck came back flustered, quickly falling to 1-5 in the second set.
But the freshman, who has struggled with inconsistency throughout her rookie season despite leading the Cardinal in wins, grew up in that moment. She tied the set with two straight breaks and won the tiebreak, eventually taking the decisive third set to send Stanford to the final.
If Monday night’s semi was about the Cardinal’s youth, Tuesday night’s final was about its veterans. Top singles player Nicole Gibbs was supposed to be dominant as a junior, but the reigning NCAA doubles and singles champion wasn’t even ranked at the beginning of the year. She lost three straight matches in late March and early April before taking time off with an injury.
A few of us at The Daily also wondered how Gibbs, who is turning pro after this season, could leave her team behind to compete in pro events this winter and spring. She missed Stanford’s Feb. 16 dual against Saint Mary’s to compete in the $25,000 Rancho Santa Fe; Gibbs made it to the final, but 500 miles to the north her team was upset by the Gaels, just the Cardinal’s third loss at Taube Family Tennis Stadium since 1999.
Any thought that Gibbs isn’t a team player was squashed on Tuesday night. After creaming the nation’s top singles player, Florida’s Lauren Embree, 6-0, 6-1 in the semifinals, Gibbs came out flat against the Aggies and dropped the first set of her finals match 0-6. She had never been blanked in a set in her three years on the Farm, and she was broken early in the second set, falling behind 0-2.
“It’s really hard to see your No. 1 player go down 6-0,” she told GoStanford.com. “Just sitting there, thinking about the impact I was having on my team from losing, just made me dig a little bit deeper.”
Just four games from losing the match, Gibbs responded dominantly, reeling off 12 straight games for the 0-6, 6-2, 6-0 win. The win kept the Cardinal alive while Gibbs’ classmate, Kristie Ahn, duked it out for the national title on court two.
Ahn’s path to the final was perhaps the most interesting. At the end of an All-American freshman season, she suffered an ankle injury that left her on the sidelines for the Cardinal’s runner-up finish in the 2011 NCAA Tournament — held on her home court, no less. She would play in only three dual matches as a sophomore due to other injuries.
But after fighting to make it back onto the court, Ahn enjoyed every minute of her junior season. You could tell just how much she wanted to be there. “So good, Krista,” she would shout between points when Hardebeck was dominating an opponent. So it was only fitting that Ahn was the one to clinch the final on Tuesday with the match knotted up at 3-3.
“When I got to 2-2 in the third set, I was smiling,” she told GoStanford.com. “I was having the best time of my life because I was thinking about how absurd it was that it was coming down to me.”
The Cardinal didn’t win a 17th national championship in women’s tennis because of the program’s rich tradition. It won because of Hardebeck, the mature freshman, Gibbs, the talented team leader, and Ahn, the resilient veteran.
It will be a long time before we forget the title that extended Stanford’s NCAA championship streak to 37 years. But it will be even longer before we forget the three characters who made it happen.
It will be the longest time before people forget Joseph Beyda’s victory at the Preakness Stakes as the tallest jockey that ever lived. Send him coupons for breeches and stirrups at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyJBeyda.
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