By David Perez
In each of the past two seasons, the No. 5 Stanford women’s tennis team has reached the finals of the NCAA tournament, but the Cardinal will not complete the trifecta, as its season came to an end after a 4-2 loss to USC in the quarterfinals in Athens, Ga.
Fourth-seeded Stanford (21-2, 9-1 Pac-12) entered Saturday’s match as the only one-loss team in the nation. The squad had beaten USC (24-3) 4-2 at home earlier in the season, though the doubles point was not played that day due to inclement weather. That was fifth-seeded USC’s only conference loss, and the Trojans also finished 9-1 in the conference and shared the Pac-12 title along with Stanford.
On Saturday, the Cardinal dropped the doubles point for only the second time all season — an ominous sign, considering the first time was in its lone regular-season loss to UCLA.
Stanford’s No. 2 doubles team of freshman Ellen Tsay and junior Stacey Tan finished first, winning 8-5, but then sophomore Nicole Gibbs and junior Mallory Burdette fell 8-6 on the first court in a rematch of the Pac-12 Championship doubles final. The pair fell behind USC’s Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria 7-2 before winning four straight games to make it 7-6. That was the closest they would get, though, and Gibbs and Burdette are now 0-2 this year against USC’s top pair.
Senior Veronica Li and sophomore Kristie Ahn lost 8-6 in their first match since early March to clinch the doubles point for the Trojans. Ahn, an All-American last year, was making her first appearance for the team since a foot injury sidelined her more than two months ago. She also appeared in singles, where her match was abandoned in the third set after USC clinched the victory.
“[Getting Ahn back] was really positive for us going forward,” said head coach Lele Forood.
Stanford’s chances in singles looked promising early, as it won five of the six first sets. Li and Gibbs were able to secure wins in their second sets, but every other match went to a decisive third set. Forood had foreshadowed this issue earlier in the week when Stanford defeated Northwestern.
“We have to find a way to finish some of those matches a little bit better in the future if we’re going to be contenders here,” she said.
Li, the only senior on the team, got a 6-4, 7-5 win — her 80th career singles victory — in what would turn out to be the final match of her Stanford career.
Burdette’s 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 loss was her first defeat in a dual match all season. The Georgia native had been 19-0 in team competitions.
Tsay also lost her final two sets, falling 1-6, 6-2, 6-2 on court five. The return of Ahn moved Tsay back one court from her typical place on court four and shifted Li to court six, while junior Natalie Dillon did not play for the first time in this tournament.
The clinching game was on court three, where Tan lost in a third-set tiebreak, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (5).
“[The match was] a pretty amazing roller coaster,” Forood said. “I don’t think anybody knew the outcome until it really ended.”
Tan, Burdette and Gibbs will now gear up for the singles portion of the NCAA tournament, which starts on Wednesday.
No. 3 Gibbs will be one of the favorites of the tournament and is the most likely to make a deep run, although No. 5 Burdette will also be a threat. The two actually faced off in the final of the ITA Northwest Regional Championship in October, and it took Gibbs three sets to beat Burdette.
Gibbs, who is riding an eleven-match win streak, also won the Pac-12 singles championship last month, defeating Tan along the way.
Stanford’s top two doubles teams will also be competing next week in the tournament. Burdette and Gibbs are the second seed, while Tan and Tsay, ranked 25th, have an at-large bid.