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Women’s tennis faces familiar foe in NCAA Round of 16

As the No. 11 Stanford women’s tennis team heads off to Athens, Georgia for the NCAA round of 16 this Thursday, it’ll be entering familiar territory.

Bear territory, that is.

For the third time this year, the Cardinal (18-2, 8-2 Pac-12) will face off against No. 6 Cal (20-4, 10-0 Pac-12), and this time the stakes are higher than ever. In their last meeting, Cal downed Stanford 6-1 to capture the Pac-12 title and hand the Cardinal only their fifth home loss in the last 15 years.

“I think it’ll be a great match,” said freshman Caroline Doyle. “Obviously they won 6-1 [last time], but I think the scores were a lot closer. There were a lot of three-set [matches]. I really think it’ll be a great battle and I definitely think we have a great opportunity to make it to the next round.”

Freshman Taylor Davidson (above)

Freshman Taylor Davidson (above) will partner with junior Ellen Tsay in the doubles competition against Cal in the Sweet 16 today. After failing to win the doubles point in their loss to the Bears in mid-April, the Card are sure to need production from their doubles squads this time around. (LARRY GE/The Stanford Daily)

On Thursday, the name of the game will be revenge for the Cardinal, which are on a mission to replicate last year’s NCAA run and claim an 18th national title for the women’s tennis program. Although it won’t be easy to take down the Bears, who are entering the match on a 14-match winning streak, there will be plenty of reasons for Cal to fear the Tree in Athens.

“We’re really helping to go and get some revenge against them,” Doyle said. “We know their team really well, so we know what we need to work on to be where we need to be by Thursday. I think we’re just approaching it one match at a time but trying not to see it as our last match.”

The last blemish on the Bears’ record is a non-conference loss against Stanford in March, and when players from both teams faced off in the Pac-12 Individual Championships at the end of April, the Card took multiple victories against Cal, including against its number one doubles team.

That said, it could be anyone’s game during the third installment of the Big Slam. The Bears come in with enormous singles talent behind 18th-ranked Anett Schutting, 23rd-ranked Zsofi Susanyi and 24th-ranked Lynn Chi. Chi ended Stanford freshman Carol Zhao’s run in the Pac-12 Tournament, and the two could very well meet again on Thursday.

The Cardinal will be packing a punch of their own, though, with third-ranked senior Kristie Ahn, 21st-ranked Zhao and 51st-ranked sophomore Krista Hardebeck leading the charge in singles. Doyle, currently ranked No. 57, will also be a force, and is riding good momentum after clinching the Cardinal’s second-round match against Long Beach State last Saturday.

Doubles will be another intense matchup. In the teams’ last meeting, Cal narrowly took the doubles point, but after Ahn and Zhao beat the Bears’ Chi and Schutting at the Pac-12s, the tables could turn this time around. Junior Ellen Tsay and freshman Taylor Davidson will also have a big role to play, as the only duo to have come close to beating Cal on Senior Day.

Despite the challenge ahead for Stanford, the team knows how to make waves as the underdog. Last season, the team went into the NCAA Tournament as the 12 seed and ended up winning the whole event.

“It feels like a similar situation to last year, where we’ve got a conference foe that was tough on us in the round of 16,” head coach Lele Forood told GoStanford.com. “It seems like we’ve been here before.”

Furthermore, each one of the six players in the lineup knows how to deal with high-pressure situations from their experiences in international tournaments or previous NCAA postseasons.

Fortunately, the Cardinal won’t have the added pressure of maintaining Stanford’s overall national championship winning streak, which disappeared over the weekend with women’s water polo’s victory over UCLA. This time last year, women’s tennis was one of the few teams with a shot at a title, and pulled through to make it 37 years in a row.

Before the tournament, 50th-ranked Davidson had described the potential pressure to maintain the streak as “nerve-wracking.” In the match versus Cal, that’s no longer a factor.

Regardless of who wins, the match also represents the greater powerhouse that is the Pac-12. The winner of the round of 16 will get one step closer to the finals, which has featured a Pac-12 team in 29 of the past 32 NCAA tournaments.

A victory for Stanford on Thursday will send the team to the quarterfinals on Saturday, which will also be played at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens. There, they would face the winner of the No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 Baylor match.

Overall, the outlook is good for Stanford on Thursday, and the team is ready to once again take on its top conference foe as it aims for an 18th title.

Contact Fiona Noonan at fnoonan ‘at’ stanford.edu.