By David Perez
The No. 5 Stanford women’s tennis team took the first step towards a third straight NCAA tournament finals matchup by defeating Stony Brook and Yale at home in the first two rounds of the tournament. Stanford now travels to Athens, Ga., where it will likely face multiple Pac-12 teams, including the only team to have beaten the Cardinal all year, top-seeded UCLA.
Fourth-seeded Stanford (20-1, 9-1 Pac-12) shut out both Stony Brook and Yale 4-0 over the weekend, setting up a third-round match with Northwestern on Thursday in Athens.
The last time Athens hosted the NCAA tournament in 2010, Stanford defeated Florida in the finals. Then-sophomore Mallory Burdette, a Georgia native, won the deciding match in front of most of her family and alongside her sister Lindsay Burdette, who was playing her last match as part of the Cardinal.
“I obviously love going back there,” said Burdette, who will be hosting team dinners at her family’s home in Athens. “All my family will be down there, and it’s a fun place to have the NCAA tournament.”
Stanford also won the NCAA tournament when it was hosted in Athens in 2004 and 2005 and was the runner-up there in 2007.
Playing in her hometown may also help Burdette forget about her heartbreaking loss in last year’s finals on the Farm. Burdette was again the last player on the court, but this time she lost in three sets to Florida’s Lauren Embree as the Gators clinched the title.
Three current Cardinal players competed in the NCAA finals in 2010 and 2011: senior Veronica Li, junior Stacey Tan, and Burdette. That experience will be important for the Cardinal, especially because it will be facing some familiar foes. The squad’s match with Northwestern is a rematch of last year’s third round contest, which Stanford won 4-2. Stanford lost the doubles point and was down 2-1 at one point before winning three straight singles matches.
“Last year it was a battle,” Burdette said. “But we know what to expect of them this year, and I think we are ready for sure.”
It is very likely that Stanford will then play two conference opponents if it advances. The top four teams on the Cardinal’s side of the bracket are all from the Pac-12.
Stanford could potentially play USC in the quarterfinals, a team the Cardinal defeated 4-2 in the regular season.
If that should occur, Stanford would then be in a position to avenge its only loss of the season, which came April 14 at home against UCLA. The Bruins have three freshmen that play singles, meaning half of their players have no postseason experience.
UCLA’s relative youth could help explain its regular season meltdown, which saw the Bruins lose to USC in a match that would have secured a share of the Pac-12 title.
“They have not responded well under pressure, especially at the end of the year,” Burdette said.
Still, Stanford will be the underdog if it could make it to the semifinals, a position the team has come to relish.
“We’ve proven throughout the year that we play best when we’re in that position,” said Burdette.
The Cardinal dominated this weekend as the heavy favorites. On Friday, the squad defeated Stony Brook, recipients of the American East’s automatic bid. Stony Brook had only five healthy players, forcing it to forfeit a point and giving Stanford a chance to give some extra rest for Tan, who is recovering from several lingering injuries.
On Saturday, the Cardinal defeated Yale behind strong performances from its top three players, sophomore Nicole Gibbs, Burdette and Tan. Gibbs was the first to finish, winning 6-0, 6-1, followed by Burdette who won 6-1, 6-3. Tan finished off the Bulldogs with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over freshman Hannah Yu.
“Yale was a step up in competition for us from Friday, and I think we handled it really well,” Burdette said.
Next weekend will no doubt be another step up in quality, but one Burdette is confident the team can deal with.
“We’ve put in a lot of hard work over the course of the year, and we’re really excited to get to Athens and show what we’re made of.”
Stanford meets Northwestern on Thursday in Athens, Ga. at 9 a.m. PDT.