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Narrow defeat in NCAA semifinals ends run for women’s tennis

After yet another nail-biter of a match, the No. 11 Stanford women’s tennis team’s (20-3, 8-2 Pac-12) championship hopes ended after the Card fell 4-3 to No. 7 North Carolina (29-5, 12-2 ACC) in the NCAA Final Four on Monday.

The Cardinal came in riding the momentum of huge wins against No. 6 California and No. 3 Virginia, but they could not hold off the Tar Heels behind huge performances by No. 5 Hayley Carter and the country’s No. 1 player, Jamie Loeb.

Krista Hardebeck (left) and Caroline Doyle (right) reunited as a doubles pair for the first time in the NCAA Tournament after spending much of the regular season together in a doubles pair. (SHIRLEY PEFLEY/stanfordphoto.com)

Sophomore Krista Hardebeck (left) and freshman Caroline Doyle (right) reunited as a doubles pair for the first time in the NCAA Tournament after spending much of the regular season together in a doubles pair. (SHIRLEY PEFLEY/stanfordphoto.com)

The match in Athens, Georgia started inauspiciously for Stanford at doubles for the second time in three matches. Despite a win by freshman Caroline Doyle and sophomore Krista Hardebeck — who reentered the doubles rotation for the first time all tournament — on court three, the Card did not capture the doubles point. After freshman Taylor Davidson and junior Ellen Tsay fell on court two, it came down to the powerhouse duo of freshman Carol Zhao and senior Kristie Ahn. The pair jumped out to a 5-2 lead, but a six-game torrent by UNC’s Carter and Loeb gave the Tar Heels the point.

The match was by no means over, though. If prior performance is any indication, the Cardinal are rarely fazed by early setbacks, and rank disparities have had little effect on the outcomes of past matches. Before Monday, Stanford was undefeated in its last nine NCAA tournament matches when ranked lower than its opponent. Unfortunately, that streak came crashing to an end with Monday’s loss.

As singles began, the Tar Heels extended their lead to 2-0 as No. 51 Hardebeck fell to No. 5 Carter on the second court. It marked the end of a somewhat disappointing tournament for Hardebeck, who provided the clincher in last year’s NCAA semifinal match. The sophomore finished this year’s tournament having lost each of her last three matches in straight sets.

This year’s squad never settled, though, and the 2-0 deficit was quickly eliminated as No. 50 Davidson blew past unranked Whitney Kay on court four. Davidson has been unstoppable since overcoming leg cramps to tie up the match against Cal in the round of 16.

At 2-1, No. 21 Zhao broke form in a rare loss to No. 59 Caroline Price on court three. Zhao lost her first set for only the sixth time this season, and after 4-4 ties in both sets, Price pulled through to win in two.

Down 3-1, the match came down to the lower half of the court, where No. 54 Tsay and No. 57 Doyle represented the Cardinal on courts five and six, respectively. Doyle increased her impressive win count to 33 on Monday with a 6-2, 6-3 win. The freshman from San Francisco has been a rock throughout the tournament and did her part once more to bring the score to 3-2. Tsay had lost two in a row coming into the match, but hit her stride with a 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory over UNC’s Kate Vialle to tie up the match, and the Cardinal found themselves back where they were against Cal, with the tournament on the line at 3-3.

Then it was all up to the nation’s third-ranked Kristie Ahn, the senior and unequivocal leader of the team. In the marquee match of the day, she faced the top-ranked Loeb on court one to play for the Cardinal’s life in the tournament.

Ahn began the match with a hard-fought 7-6 (4) victory in the first set, which was Loeb’s first set loss since March, and her only setback of the tournament. After that, though, the freshman from North Carolina steamrolled the usually steadfast Ahn to take the next two sets 6-0, 6-0.

“By the end [Loeb] was just pretty unconscious,” said Stanford head coach Lele Forood. “Kristie was heroic in her first set, and that was a good start, but Jamie just started to just kick it up a bit.”

It was a disappointing end to what otherwise been an almost perfect season for the Cardinal. After losing former NCAA singles champion Nicole Gibbs, it looked as though Stanford might have had a bit of a rebuilding year after last year’s national title. But with the entrance of freshmen Zhao, Doyle and Davidson, the Cardinal’s outlook is now brighter than ever.

The very young team has much to look forward to in the coming years, and in the more immediate future, the outlook for the NCAA singles tournament looks fantastic. All six members of Stanford’s main lineup received spots in the tournament, which will begin on May 21.

“They were very tough,” Forood said. “We had some chances. We couldn’t capitalize on some things…As it goes, we found three and we couldn’t find the fourth.”

Stanford begins play at the NCAA Individual Championships on Wednesday.

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