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W. Tennis: Fab four freshmen on the Farm

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After knocking off Florida, 4-3, at the NCAA Division I Women’s Tennis Championship last May, Stanford earned its first title since 2006 and proved that it could once again reign as the top women’s tennis program in the NCAA.

Starting off this season ranked No. 1, Stanford (3-0, 0-0 Pac-10) lost just one player to graduation, but added four fiery freshmen – Kristie Ahn, Nicole Gibbs, Elizabeth Ecker and Amelia Herring – to its roster.

Freshman Nicole Gibbs (above) skipped out on a professional career to attend Stanford instead. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Unique and brilliant in their own ways, meet Stanford’s newest forces on the court.

Nicole Gibbs began her tennis career when she was 7 years old and by age 11, had won her first national title. Growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., Gibbs faced the difficult choice of attending college or joining the pro circuit after graduation.

Gibbs said her high school experience was very different from the average student.

“Tennis shortened my high school career because I skipped 10th grade,” she said. “On average, I missed about 40 days per year, but it was worth it.”

Gibbs describes one of her strengths as problem solving.

“I love competition, so I take a lot of pride in my ability to outthink my opponents,” Gibbs remarked. She said her biggest ambition is to “Compete at the largest venues and hopefully achieve a top-50 professional ranking. I do wish to enjoy an education, college tennis and a social life before braving it on the tour.”

“Andrew Luck couldn’t help but be inspired by my pursuit of a balanced college life,” she jokingly added. “I won’t call him a poser, but committing to a college career was clearly my idea first.”

Ahn graduated from the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, N.Y., last June, but she, like Gibbs, had an unusual high school experience.

“I spent seven out of my last 10 months of school in California, while still ‘attending’ PCS,” she said using air quotes. “The school was incredibly supportive of me.”

Ahn is expected to play in one of the top-four singles positions this season, but despite being alone on the court, she said that the bonds with her team are important.

“Our team prides itself on being a tight-knit group, just like a family,” she said. “We are always trying to push each other so that we can be that much better. I can recall this one time during fitness when I felt like I couldn’t run anymore, but my team was right there urging me on, and I was able to finish.”

Ahn is also known as one of the most graceful players on the team.

“She just glides on the court, making it look unfairly easy.” quipped Ecker.

Herring, a native of Carlsbad, Calif., arrived at Stanford after graduating from LaCosta Canyon High School last year. At just under six feet tall, Herring is known for her unbelievable power and strength.

“I love to go big on my serve,” she said.

Her teammates say that her wicked serve is probably her greatest asset, along with her hard work ethic. Herring started playing tennis at age 4, and she began playing competitively before high school.

“I played on my high school team [my freshman year], but other than that, I kept to my routine of practicing and playing tournaments almost every month,” Herring said. “I left school every day by noon and didn’t partake in many school events, but it was all worth it.”

Ecker hails from Wisconsin, graduating last June from the University School of Milwaukee. With her assiduous work ethic and infamous giggle, Ecker not only brings exceptional talent, but also an irreplaceable light-heartedness to the team.

Her older brother, Sam Ecker, plays on the men’s team.

“Competing at the same university as my brother is something we will both share for the rest of our lives,” she said.

Ecker began playing tennis seriously at age 8, stayed off the court with injuries from ages 10 to 13 and made a miraculous comeback recovery to be one of the four freshmen on the team.

Ecker says there are many challenges that come with being a freshman, but one stands out above all others.

“It’s definitely giving Dilly (sophomore Natalie Dillon) shotgun whenever we are driving somewhere,” she joked.

The Cardinal has a strong, young class looking to work hard and continue to improve the prestigious program in their four years on the Farm. With the addition of these four players, Stanford women’s tennis has a chance to repeat the successes of 2010.

The Cardinal’s next outing is this Saturday, when it hosts UCLA in Taube Tennis Stadium at noon.