By Alexa Corse
When Caroline Lampl found herself in position to clinch a semifinal victory for Stanford (19-5, 9-1 Pac-12) over defending NCAA champion Vanderbilt, she knew exactly what to do.
After all, Lampl had already clinched six times for Stanford — twice as many as any of her teammates this season. Lampl also led the team in winning three-setters, having amassed a 9-4 record in three-set matches.
The freshman displayed both hard-earned talents — clinching and persevering over three sets — on her biggest stage yet on Monday afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, clinching 15th-seeded Stanford’s 4-2 upset over sixth-seeded Vanderbilt with a dramatic 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-3 win at the No. 5 spot.
Thanks to winning the doubles point, Stanford was always one step ahead of Vanderbilt (23-6, 11-2 SEC) throughout the match. The Commodores nevertheless offered consistent pressure and nearly pulled off a late comeback before Lampl stepped up to halt Vanderbilt in its tracks.
Stanford faces 12th-seeded Oklahoma State in the final on Tuesday at 10 a.m. PT. The pairing is a fitting finale for a tournament riddled with upset victories, in which a lone top-four seed (No. 1 Cal) reached the semifinals. While Stanford defeated Vanderbilt with solid but not exactly outstanding play, Oklahoma State was undeniably on fire as it stunned No. 1 seed Cal 4-3 earlier on Monday morning.
Stanford will also have to contend against a large crowd cheering for Oklahoma State, which had approximately 600 fans (proudly sporting traffic-cone orange fan gear) fill the tennis center to support the local favorite on Monday.
The doubles team of junior Carol Zhao and freshman Melissa Lord ensured that Stanford started off on a stronger note than the team has in its three prior rounds of the NCAA tournament, in which the Cardinal suffered bouts of shaky play and snuck by with consecutive 4-3 victories.
Zhao and Lord, ranked No. 31 nationally in doubles, won 6-2 on Court 2. Senior Krista Hardebeck and freshman Caroline Lampl clinched the doubles point for Stanford shortly after, winning 6-3 on Court 3.
However, when Stanford played Vanderbilt in a regular-season dual match on January 30, the Cardinal clinched the doubles point but failed to win any singles matches. The biggest question of this rematch was whether the return of Zhao to the No. 1 singles spot could give Stanford the edge it needed in singles play. (Zhao took a break from collegiate play for the professional circuit over winter quarter, but returned to The Farm for the second half of the season.)
Zhao, the 2015 NCAA singles runner-up, promptly put Stanford ahead 2-0 in the dual match tally. Ranked No. 25 nationally, Zhao handled No. 18 Sydney Campbell’s big serve (likely even faster since the match was played indoors) and was more consistent in rallies to win 6-4, 6-3.
Junior Caroline Doyle has struggled to find her rhythm in the NCAA tournament, winning only one match so far while playing at No. 3. The string of shaky play continued today as the Commodores’ No. 32 Astra Sharma defeated Doyle 6-4, 6-2, which narrowed Stanford’s lead to 2-1 in the dual match tally.
While Stanford won four of six first sets to open singles play, the Commodores then staged a late comeback that kept the team on edge for the rest of the match.
The first sign of mounting trouble for the Cardinal started on Court 4, when senior Krista Hardebeck lost a closely contested tiebreaker in the first set to the Commodores’ Courtney Colton. Hardbeck has won 20 of her last 23 matches, but Colton dealt her a 7-6 (6), 6-4 defeat.
Vanderbilt then forced third sets at Nos. 2, 5 and 6. Lord had an erratic match at the No. 6 spot, as she lost the second set 0-6 before reclaiming the momentum to prevail 6-2 in the third set.
Although Stanford was ahead 3-2 in the dual match tally, Vanderbilt had a clear shot at victory in the third sets of both remaining matches on Courts 2 and 5.
The Commodores’ Frances Altick, ranked 14th nationally, forced No. 46 junior Taylor Davidson to a third set on Court 2. The entire match was full of long, physically demanding rallies, including a 22-shot rally which Davidson clinched with a volley winner to take the first set. That physical intensity seemed to be fatiguing Davidson, who had three consecutive three-set matches prior to facing Altick. Davidson and Altick stayed on serve at 2-2, but Davidson was caught in an uphill battle.
At this point, Lampl stepped forward to save the day. Her opponent was Fernanda Contreras, a fellow freshman who likewise has amassed an outstanding record in her inaugural collegiate season. (Counting Monday’s match, both freshmen have a 29-5 overall record.) After winning the first set 6-4, Lampl lost the second set in a disappointing tiebreaker, 6-7 (4), during which she made impatient errors when faced with Contreras’ scrappy slices and ability to return what would, against most players, be outright winners. Lampl’s downslide continued into the third set as Contreras jumped to a 2-0 lead.
“[Contreras] slices a lot, and I don’t play my best against people who play very tricky,” Lampl said in the post-match press conference. “I missed a lot, but I had to go for my shots. I couldn’t just back off.”
Lampl finally rediscovered her characteristic balance of gritty consistency helped by heavy topspin groundstrokes and aggressive shot-making, as she claimed the next four games. She was helped when Contreras was overruled at 30-all, 3-2, which then allowed Lampl to hold the game at 40-30 and secure a 4-2 lead. (Contreras tried to call out an incredible inside-out forehand winner by Lampl, which bounced along a short, mid-court angle.)
Insane. Lampl finally converts 3rd hold pt by ripping BHDTL winner. Up 5-3*. One game away from sending Card to finals.
— Alexa Corse (@AlexaCorse) May 23, 2016
Contreras kept steady pressure on Lampl, solidly holding for 4-3 and then preventing Lampl from converting until her third hold point to go up 5-3. But Lampl’s aggressive shots succeeded more often than they went awry, and Lampl secured quadruple match point (due to no-advantage scoring). Stanford’s place in the NCAA final was secured when Contreras sent a forehand into the net on Lampl’s second match point.
Stanford’s tournament run is reviving memories of the Cardinal’s 2013 NCAA championship, when the No. 12-seeded Cardinal made history as the lowest-seeded team ever to claim an NCAA championship title. This year, No. 15 Stanford might not be able to claim as much of a Cinderella-story status when squared off against No. 12 Oklahoma State, also a low seed. However, the Stanford squad has undoubtedly overcome obstacles and surpassed expectations this season.
“We had to survive a period without our number-one player, which was very challenging,” head coach Lele Forood said. “And we just knew that our freshmen had to gain experience. I’m very, very proud.”
Stanford will take the court for the final time this season on Tuesday as the team competes for its 18th national title.
Contact Alexa Corse at corsea ‘at’ stanford.edu.