By Will Seaton
Seniors Stacey Tan and Natalie Dillon of the Stanford women’s tennis team have seen their share of change and development through their four years on the Farm, leading to memorable victories, a little frustration and a lot of hard work.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Dillon said. “Stanford was so much of a dream school for me. Since I was five years old, my grandparents would take me here. When you see all the families around here, I was one of those kids. I didn’t know any other school apart from Stanford which was a blessing and a curse.”
The Class of 2013 has experienced success on the court, starting their careers by winning the NCAA Team National Championship. The next year, the team made it to the finals again before losing to the Florida Gators. Tan appeared in the NCAA Singles Championship title match in 2011, becoming the lowest-ranked player to compete in the championship match as No. 43, and she also played in last year’s NCAA Singles Championship. Dillon captured the Pac-10 Championships Invitational doubles title with Mallory Burdette in 2011; both players have won a share of the Pac-12 title three times. Most importantly, the Class of 2013 holds a 7-1 record against Cal.
“It’s kind of hard to believe how fast it went by,” Tan said. “This is our last chance at NCAAs, last year to be here. But it’s with a great group of people each year and I don’t think I would have changed that.”
Before this year, there was a third member of the Class of 2013. Mallory Burdette was one of the biggest contributors to the Stanford program during her three-year stint on the Farm before deciding to try her luck at the pro circuit. She clinched the NCAA title her freshman year, won the NCAA doubles title with Hilary Barte her sophomore year and again her junior year with Nicole Gibbs. She was also the runner-up in the NCAA singles title last season, losing to teammate Gibbs in the final. Her decision to not return for her senior year came after she reached the third round of the 2012 U.S. Open and lost only to third-seeded Maria Sharapova.
“I wish Mallory could have been here,” Tan said, “but she made the decision she needed to. She’s also been coming out to matches when she can; she was there at the Cal match. She’s been doing a great job of keeping in touch with us which makes her feel like she’s here without being physically here.”
Tan had been groomed for top-tier tennis: She was a talented recruit coming in her freshman year and a player comfortable being on her own. She has a 108-35 record so far during her singles career at Stanford. Her biggest challenge playing for the Cardinal was learning that winning was no longer defined by her personal success alone, but by that of her teammates as well.
“I was a very independent, individual person coming in and had tennis as an individual sport,” Tan explained. “I didn’t really turn to anybody for help if I needed it and I tried to solve it on my own. Being on the tennis team [at Stanford] has helped a ton. It helped me learn the team aspect a lot better and that I wasn’t just playing for myself. I was playing for the team.”
For Dillon, having Tan there to grow and transition with — as well as to play with — has been necessary and valuable support.
“When I first met her, she was quieter and more reserved,” Dillon said. “It’s been really wonderful to see her be more independent, assertive. It’s been really cool having someone there to grow with and go through this experience with.”
Dillon may say she’s your classic underdog story, but there is more to her than that. She turned down scholarship offers from New Mexico, Santa Clara and Denver to walk on to the Stanford team her freshman year, committed to being “the best practice partner, the best teammate” and to “do whatever I can outside of the tennis court to help the team.”
After a year, she began earning more playing time. After two, she was awarded a scholarship from the coaching staff. She is now a determined and vocal leader her senior year. So far she owns a career record of 31-32 in singles.
“I feel like an underdog and I like feeling like an underdog,” Dillon said. “I never want to feel complacent. I think the second you feel complacent is when you stop growing.”
Dillon has used her story and dedication to Stanford to inspire the rest of her teammates to greater levels of commitment.
“Natalie is a very hard worker,” Tan described. “With her improvement from freshman year to now, it’s very drastic and you can see how much effort she’s put in for the team and how much she cares about the team and in that sense I feel like it’s rubbed off on us as a class and us as a team.”
Both of the graduating women have bright futures ahead of them off the court, although tennis will maintain some presence in their next chapters. Natalie will work next year at Goldman Sachs in the Bay Area. Stacey will take a job in the Information Systems Department of Toyota in Southern California. Both plan to keep tennis in their lives in some way or another.
“I think playing tennis is very much ingrained in my identity as a person,” Dillon said. “I’m not ready to give tennis up. I don’t want to. It’s a sport you can play your whole life, so why stop playing when I’m 21?”
They are quick to admit that leaving their teammates will be one of the hardest challenges about graduation. Both graduated and current players have served as role models for Dillon and Tan in their personal growth. Fortunately, there still remains the NCAA Tournament and both are excited for the opportunities they’ll have in their last couple weeks in Cardinal and White.
“We’re all working so hard, putting in so much effort and we spend a ton of time together,” Tan said. “Having that ultimate common goal in the end and it being so close, it brings us a lot closer.”
The arrival of NCAAs means the end of the school year and, unique to this year, the fast-approaching date of graduation. Both Tan and Dillon are excited about their lives after college but say that Stanford will stay with them in the lessons they have learned and the people they have met.
“One of the great things about Stanford and great things about being a student-athlete is that it does promote being well-rounded,” Dillon said. “You’re not just a student here, you’re not just an athlete. Everyone here is a mini Renaissance-man or -woman. I always feel here that I constantly have to keep pushing and not just in one direction. It’s that attitude that you shouldn’t be complacent. [That’s] the biggest thing Stanford has taught me and that will continue to be ingrained with me for a long time to come.”
Contact Will Seaton at wseaton “at” stanford.edu.