With the entire stadium watching, junior co-captain Kristie Ahn clinched No. 12 Stanford women’s tennis’ 17th NCAA Championship with a 7-5, 4-6, 6-2 victory on Court No. 2 to propel the Cardinal past No. 3 Texas A&M on Tuesday night.
“It was so surreal,” Ahn said. “I was having so much fun out there and just loving the moment. I had the biggest grin on my face, and when I went up to hit that final serve, I said, ‘This one, this one is it.’ We all watched [the shot] sail long, and I started jumping around like a little kid.”
Ahn’s match would not have mattered without the miraculous comeback of her fellow junior co-captain Nicole Gibbs.
Gibbs fought back from 0-6, 0-2 down against A&M’s Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar, losing a set 6-0 for the first time in her 120-match collegiate career to win the next 12 games and take the match 0-6, 6-2, 6-0. The comeback win gave Stanford (22-4, 8-2 Pac-12) a 3-0 lead over the Aggies (26-4, 12-1 SEC), setting up Ahn’s clincher.
“I have all the confidence in the world in my team,” Gibbs said, “but it’s hard to see your No. 1 player go down quickly in a dual match because it hurts team momentum. I felt a little drained at the beginning and I wasn’t staying in points long enough to outlast her the way I needed to.”
That’s when Gibbs had a self-proclaimed wake-up call.
“I sat down with [Coach Lele Forood],” Gibbs said, “and I said, ‘My team needs me here. I need to win this match.’”
The victory gave Stanford its first NCAA team title in the 2012-13 athletics year. Stanford had won at least one NCAA team title in each of the last 36 years, and the women’s tennis NCAA Tournament was one of the Cardinal’s last opportunities to extend the streak.
Entering the tournament seeded outside of the top 10 for the first time since 2009, Stanford became the lowest-seeded team to capture the women’s tennis NCAA team title. The Cardinal first defeated the Pac-12 champions No. 5 USC in the Round of 16.
“We were suppose to lose in the first non-regional round,” Gibbs said. “USC was our biggest hurdle mentally coming into the tournament. We knew we worked harder than any other team in the country, and if we could win that match, we could ultimately win the championship.”
Stanford went on to creep past No. 4 Georgia in the quarterfinals, No. 1 Florida in the semifinals and finally the No. 3 Aggies in the finals.
Stanford captured these wins without Mallory Burdette ’13, who played No. 2 singles and teamed up with Gibbs in No. 1 doubles for the Cardinal last year and left school to play on the pro circuit in September. Only two Cardinal players, Gibbs and senior Stacey Tan, had appeared in more than two NCAA Tournament matches.
It was a night of ups and downs. Stanford’s first completed match was an 8-3 loss on Court No. 1 by the No. 8 nationally ranked duo of Gibbs and Ahn.
“We got outplayed [at doubles],” Gibbs admitted. “I don’t say that very often, but they executed everything they needed to and made us play worse than we have been playing. They just came out a little bit tougher than us, and we were weren’t quite prepared.”
An 8-4 win from Tan and sophomore Ellen Tsay and a huge 8-5 victory from the oldest and youngest members of the squad, senior co-captain Natalie Dillon and freshman Krista Hardebeck, over twin Aggies Ines and Paula Deheza, set Stanford up 1-0 entering singles.
Tan was the first to finish in singles, topping Ines Deheza in a 7-5, 6-3 straight-set victory. Then, Gibbs, who won both the NCAA individual singles and doubles tournament last year, completed her comeback to put the Cardinal on the brink of the title.
The Cardinal was up 3-0 at this point in the match, but the score was deceiving. Hardebeck, Dillon, and Tsay all had lost the first sets of their matches and were neck-and-neck in their respective second sets.
Tsay, who clinched Stanford’s victory over USC last Friday, was the first to fall, losing to A&M’s Anna Mamalat 6-1, 7-5.
Stanford’s lead was down to 3-1.
Hardebeck’s story follows a similar narrative. She sealed the Cardinal’s victory first in the quarterfinal match against Georgia before repeating the feat in a huge comeback win over No. 1 Florida’s Alexandra Cercone in the semifinals.
The highly touted rookie fell 6-3 in the first set to A&M’s Nazari Urbina. Like Tsay, she almost drove it to a third before losing 7-6 (3) in a second set tiebreaker.
All of a sudden, the Aggies were just one match behind.
Dillon managed to send her match to a third set after making an impressive second-set comeback, but couldn’t finish for the Cardinal as she tumbled 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 to A&M’s Stefania Hristov.
With the match tied at 3-3, it was Ahn’s moment to shine.
“[Coach Frankie Brennan] said to me during the match,” Ahn said, “‘You deserve this, this is destiny, it’s going to happen.’ And I said, ‘You are right, it is going to happen.’ We put in the hard work, we definitely had the toughest draw and to pull it out? I don’t know how to describe it.”
Ahn was sidelined most of last season with injury, making only her fourth singles appearance of the season in then-No. 4 Stanford’s quarterfinals loss to USC. This year, Ahn clinched an NCAA title, capping an improbable run in the college tennis world’s most esteemed tournament.
Crowds watched in awe as Ahn led 5-2 in the third set after winning the first 7-5 but dropping the second 4-6. At the end of a back and forth game between the two players, Stancu missed long and the tight-knit Stanford squad bombarded Ahn in an even tighter circle.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better team national-championship clincher,” Gibbs said. “[Ahn] is just such a team player, really sticking with the team through some of the hardest periods of her life. Everyone on the team deserves to win her match, but I’m so happy to see [Ahn] win it for us.”
Tonight will be a night of celebration for the players and coaches, but a short-lived one. The NCAA individual singles and doubles tournaments begin this week, with Gibbs looking to defend both titles.
Contact Chrissy Jones at chrissyj ‘at’ stanford.edu.