By Evan Burke
After a thrilling first weekend of NCAA tournament action in Evanston, Illinois, Stanford men’s tennis (16-10, 4-3 Pac-12) has advanced to the Round of 16 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Their next match, which will take place on Friday, comes against a familiar foe for the Cardinal, the No. 2 UCLA Bruins (24-2, 7-0).
UCLA has taken care of business so far, dominating both Weber State and San Diego at home to the tune of 4-0 shutouts. The Bruins have been one of the best teams in the nation all year, maintaining a top 10 ranking since early February, and are Pac-12 regular-season and tournament champions. They have unquestionably earned their No. 3 seed in the tournament and are a formidable matchup for any opponent.
The Cardinal have faced the Bruins three times already this season, with UCLA taking every match. The first, a fiercely contested 4-3 decision at Taube Tennis Stadium during Stanford’s early-season losing streak, was the closest the Cardinal came to a victory, with UCLA winning by a more comfortable 4-1 margin both at home in the regular season and in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. Still, the Stanford team that UCLA will face in Tulsa is not the same one that it has beaten three times this year.
The Cardinal are firing on all cylinders, kicking off their tournament run with their best team tennis of the year. A dominant first-round win over Notre Dame in Evanston signaled that Stanford could be a dangerous team in the tournament, and those signs were confirmed as the Cardinal notched their most impressive victory of the season in an epic 4-3 match two days later against No. 14 Northwestern.
Dropping the doubles point against a quality team like the Wildcats could have been disastrous for Stanford, but the team showed great poise and battled back to notch four singles victories, including an impressive three-set comeback victory by Fawcett at No. 1 singles. Two matches of excellent tennis doesn’t guarantee a victory against UCLA, but it does show that the Cardinal are locked in, elevating their game to a level they weren’t able to consistently reach in the regular season.
To give themselves a chance to win on Friday, Stanford will need to find that level again. Although the Cardinal have bested UCLA in doubles in each of their three matches this season, they have struggled in singles, so clinching that first point will be imperative. In singles, Stanford will have to find a way to improve on its past matches.
Fawcett, who has been ranked as highly as the No. 3 singles player in the country this year, will play UCLA’s No. 6-ranked Mackenzie McDonald at No. 1 singles. Fawcett has yet to defeat McDonald this year, but played excellently and came up clutch against Northwestern, clinching the match after going down a set, and Stanford will need him at his best yet again.
Nolan Paige and Michael Genender have both notched victories against UCLA this season, while David Wilczynski and Maciek Romanowicz have played the Bruins tough. All of them, and the rest of Stanford’s singles lineup, will need to give it their all Friday to have a chance to win, but given the way the Cardinal have been playing, and with everything on the line, there’s no reason to doubt Stanford will be ready to bring everything they’ve got in Tulsa.
Should the Cardinal pull off the upset, they will not only have knocked their rivals out of the tournament, but also will have have proved they have what it takes to play with and beat anyone, and will have established themselves as legitimate threats to win the title. The team has shown flashes of excellence this year, but its toughest test of the season will give them a chance to prove their merit and challenge for a national championship.
First serve is at 5 p.m. this Friday in Tulsa.
Contact Evan Burke at eburke3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.