The Stanford women’s tennis team entered this year’s NCAA Tournament without much fanfare. Seeded No. 12, expectations weren’t as high for the tight-knit squad of eight girls as they have been in recent years.
But the Cardinal has proved everyone wrong with its performance thus far in the tournament. This weekend, Stanford knocked out two top five seeded teams in its quest for a national title. The first victim was No. 5 USC, whom the Cardinal (20-4, 8-2 Pac-12) outlasted 4-3 in a five-hour marathon Friday night. The second casualty was No. 4 Georgia, who Stanford dispatched 4-1 in the quarterfinal matchup on Sunday.
Going into the tournament, Stanford would rather have not had to face the Trojans (23-3, 9-0 Pac-12) in the Round of 16. Not only did they eliminate the Cardinal from last year’s postseason in the quarterfinals, but they also crushed Stanford 6-1 in this year’s regular season matchup.
The Cardinal came out strong though, capturing the doubles point with a huge victory from the team’s No. 1 pairing of co-captain juniors Nicole Gibbs and Kristie Ahn. They came back from a 4-1 deficit to defeat Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria 9-8 (2), handing USC’s top duo its first doubles loss this season. Senior co-captain Natalie Dillon and freshman Krista Hardebeck then secured the doubles point with an 8-1 victory over Gabriella DeSimone and Danielle Lao.
Gibbs came out strong for the Cardinal in singles, registering a win over Santamaria 7-6 (3), 6-2 on court one. It was just under two months ago that Gibbs fell to Santamaria 6-1, 6-4, and her fate almost seemed to be taking the same form this time around. In the first set she went down 5-1, only to come back and win the tiebreaker. Gibbs went on to cruise through the second set.
The Cardinal also registered a singles victory from senior Stacey Tan, who defeated Giuliana Olmos 6-2, 6-2. The Cardinal’s three singles losses came from Ahn on court two, who fell to Lao 4-6, 6-2, 5-7, Hardebeck on court three, who lost to Zoe Scandalis 3-6, 6-7 (5) and Dillon on court six, who stumbled 3-6, 1-6 against Christian.
With the score tied at 3-3, it all came down to sophomore Ellen Tsay. Tsay lost the first set and trailed 3-0 in the second set, but she would claw her way back, outlasting DeSimone in a hard fought battle to capture a 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 win.
“I tried not to think about the overall score and tried to concentrate on my own court and my own game,” Tsay said. “I kept fighting and took it one point at a time. I knew it would be a really good boost to get my match to a third set.”
Despite the ringing of loud cheers from USC fans behind her, Tsay was able to remain focused on her shots, not the stakes at hand.
“I thought I did a good job of keeping it together and not thinking too much about the circumstances,” she said. “I only had one double fault, which went a long way in helping to calm my nerves, knowing I had a second serve to rely on. There were a lot of shots I thought I would have hit better in practice or could have done a better job of putting away, but I just focused on staying solid.”
The third set was tied at 3-3 before Tsay breezed through three straight games to capture the victory and send her team to the quarterfinal round.
“The last game was fun because I could tell that [DeSimone] was breaking down,” she said. “She missed a couple returns and hit one over the fence, and I was pretty excited that I could see the end drawing near. We were all smiling, and when I finally won, my teammates rushed onto the court to hug me. It was definitely my favorite moment so far in my time here.”
The Cardinal players were rewarded with only one day of rest before they faced SEC co-champion Georgia (24-4, 12-1 SEC). They spent that day fine tuning their individual games.
“We had a pretty targeted practice,” Tsay said. “[Gibbs] worked on groundstrokes and side to sides, and I worked on staying low to the ground. We all worked on the things we needed to execute the game plan.”
Practice paid off, as the Cardinal cruised past one of the nation’s toughest teams to capture a 4-1 victory. After losing the doubles point, the singles lineup stormed back to cash in four straight victories.
The first point came from Ahn, who crushed Maho Kowase 6-0, 6-1 on court two. It was Tsay again who delivered a win over her fellow northern Californian Ayaka Okuno, 6-1, 6-2 to put Stanford up 2-1. Tan beat Kate Fuller 6-4, 7-5 on court four and Hardebeck delivered the final blow to Silvia Garcia, coming back after losing her first set to seize a 2-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory. Hardebeck’s victory over a fellow rookie marked her first postseason career win.
Her clincher also propels Stanford to the semifinals of the tournament, making the Cardinal the lowest-seeded team to make it that far since No. 12 UCLA did it in 2007. Stanford will face red-hot No. 1 Florida (26-2, 12-1 SEC) on Monday in a highly anticipated matchup. The Cardinal lost to the Gators in February 4-2 but hopes to use its recent momentum to pull off yet another upset.
The Card pulled off a 4-3 win over the Gators in the 2010 NCAA Championship game, but Florida returned the favor a year later, defeating Stanford 4-3 in the finals to clinch the 2011 national championship.
Stanford has extra incentive to beat Florida today as two Stanford Athletics streaks are on the line. Stanford has yet to win an NCAA title this year, after earning at least one for the past 36 years. Stanford has also won the Directors’ Cup for the past 18 consecutive years. If the Card fails to win this match, the Directors’ Cup—awarded to the best collegiate athletics program in the nation—could go to Florida.
The matchup between two of the nation’s most storied programs begins today at 3 p.m. PST, with the winner moving on to the national championship.
Contact Chrissy Jones at [email protected]