In this installment of the “Senior Sit Down” series, the Daily’s Neel Ramachandran caught up with Taylor Davidson of the women’s tennis team. A four-year starter for the Cardinal, Davidson played mostly at the Nos. 1 and 2 spots in the singles lineup while also garnering All-American honors for her doubles play. Davidson played an integral role in the team’s tournament run last year, clinching the match against Oklahoma State that secured the program’s 18th NCAA Championship.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): You’re very fresh off your senior season — you guys made it to the NCAA final before a tough loss against No. 1 Florida last week. What does it feel like to know you’ve reached the end of your four years on the Farm and played your last collegiate match?
Taylor Davidson (TD): It’s definitely weird to think about, that I’m actually finished. I never imagined this day actually getting here [laughs]. But to finish like that, I don’t think I really expected it. Even during the season which we were having, we were doing really well, but I never actually really thought, “Maybe we can get back to that final and have a chance at winning it again.
TSD: You personally got a lot of love from the Stanford community on social media for your tournament effort, especially after a comeback clincher in the semis against Ohio State. Patrick McEnroe even tweeted at you! Stanford has a history of great tennis players — how does it feel to know that you’ve etched your name in that legacy?
Yes you sure did ??❤️❤️ https://t.co/0LB3j8KV3q
— Patrick McEnroe (@PatrickMcEnroe) May 24, 2017
TD: It’s really neat. I don’t rank myself up there in terms of talent with some of the players that have come out of Stanford — I mean, you have people that have finished their collegiate careers here undefeated at the No. 1 spot, which is just incredible. Those people etched their names in a different way. Ever since I was little, my coach always taught me to just have more heart than everyone else. I’m just really happy that that’s how I’ll be remembered, as a fighter, as someone who had heart and fought until I literally couldn’t anymore. I think it’s really special that I even get to be considered on a list with those other people, but if I had the choice, I would be on the list for that reason.
TSD: Let’s backtrack all the way to the beginning. What got you into tennis as a young kid?
TD: I played baseball when I was little because my dad had played. I reached the age where I either had to play softball or quit, because I couldn’t play with the guys anymore. I didn’t really want to play softball, and I was kind of looking for a sport. I was just hitting with my dad one day at the public park, and the man who ended up being coach for 11 years actually came up to me and introduced himself and said that I should come try out his academy. I tried it, and I ended up training with him from age 8 until I got to Stanford.
TSD: You mentioned your dad, who played Major League Baseball and won a World Series. What was his impact on your tennis career?
TD: He knew a lot about tennis, and would hit with me a lot. He’s super athletic so he could beat me until I was 14. He was always there if I needed to talk to someone about mental struggle — obviously he knew a lot about sports on the mental side. Tennis and baseball are somewhat similar mentally and also physically, and when I was having issues with my strokes, I would have him take me to the batting cages and throw me pitches because it helped my swing.
He would joke now that tennis messed up my baseball swing, not the other way around [laughs].
TSD: You’re from North Carolina, which is pretty deep in ACC/SEC territory. There are a lot of good teams in that area, with the likes of UNC, Vanderbilt and Florida. What convinced you to come all the way out here to Stanford?
TD: For the longest time I wanted to stay in the South, and if anyone asked me, I would say I was sure I wanted to stay close to home to be with family. I think I was a day away from committing to Vanderbilt, but on a whim, my coach contacted the Stanford coaches and they were interested. It was actually my dad that said, “You need to consider this a little more seriously,” because I didn’t know too much about the place — it’s not a particularly well-known school where I’m from in the South. He flew me out here to watch the USC match in 2013 and I met the coaches and saw the campus and thought, “Okay, this is the real deal, I need to see if I can get in.” It became something I wouldn’t be comfortable saying no to without exploring more fully.
TSD: You, Carol Zhao and Caroline Doyle are part of a recruiting class that will be remembered pretty fondly at Stanford. Did you guys know each other at all before coming to Stanford? Was there any communication about coming here together and teaming up, or did it kind of just happen?
TD: I had played Caroline in Clay Courts before coming to Stanford, but we didn’t know each other at that point, and I know Carol and Caroline knew each other a little bit. But we all took our official visit at the same time, which was so much fun, and I would recommend it to any other recruiting class, because that’s really where we got to know each other.
After that, we stayed in contact before getting to school in the fall. We were watching Stanford play in the 2013 NCAA final and texting each other, so that official visit was where we really got excited.
TSD: Did you beat Caroline at Clay Courts?
TD: I did not, no. I like to think that clay courts are her strength, and they are definitely not mine [laughs].
TSD: It must have been pretty cool to watch that 2013 team win a championship while you were a high school senior, knowing you would join the team the next year.
TD: It was awesome. It just goes to show what Stanford is about. Every year, regardless of what the ITA seeds us, our team is competing for the championship. Every single year.
TSD: Do you have a favorite pre-match song? What about superstitions on the court?
TD: When I was younger, I would always get really frustrated with myself. My coach taught us that after a point, say whatever you need to say, do whatever you need to do — aside from breaking your racket — and go back to the fence and touch it with your racket, and let all that negative emotion go into the fence so you can turn around and start the next point fresh. I still do it — sometimes it’s the fence, sometimes the towel. Anything that involves stepping away from the baseline and resetting myself helps.
I don’t know if I can pick one song, but we do have a lot that the team jams to. One of the crazier ones that we listened to last year all the time was “Bricks” by Carnage. I remember listening to in the van after we won the championship and just screaming at the top of our lungs. It’s a crazy song — it’s not too PG [laughs].
TSD: You’ve often been labeled as a fighter, and for good reason. You’ve repeatedly shown an ability to lock in on big points and just refuse to miss. What do you think gives you that ability?
TD: I think it’s a mix of a lot of things, but the common thing that I’ve found when reflecting after matches on how I came through is the idea that I’m playing to stay on the court for a teammate. To give you a little context, for at least two of the three matches last year that I clinched (during the tournament) and the match against Ohio State this year, I was down and just staying out there to keep the pressure off of my teammates. At Ohio State, [Caroline] Lampl was still playing and I was down 4-1, but I was like, “If you can win a couple games here, the pressure isn’t all on her shoulders, so if she has a little slip-up she’s not freaking out and the match isn’t on the line yet.”
That’s how they all start out, and obviously it can be frustrating if it ends up coming down to me, but at the same time, I’ve been there so many times and when it comes down to it, I just know what I have to do.
TSD: You speak a lot about playing for your team, which is concept that really only exists at the college level. Was the transition from playing on the individual circuit as a junior to college, where the team is everything, difficult? Was there pressure in having to perform for your teammates, or was that something you embraced?
TD: I think I enjoyed that transition greatly. Even in the juniors, there were occasionally team tournaments and I lived for those things. Even though there’s added pressure, the atmosphere is so much more fun. You have more reasons to be out there doing what you’re doing. If you lose a clinching match, it really sucks and it’s hard to get over, but the wins are also magnified. The emotions are all so much better because you have the team there with you.
TSD: This team has played so many close matches in the past couple years. You barely clinched against Florida last year in the round of 16, Caroline Doyle had a crazy clincher against Michigan in the next round, and then, of course, your comeback in the final. What is it like to be playing in those deciding matches versus watching them from the sidelines and knowing it’s out of your hands?
TD: A lot of us would say that we would rather be playing, but I don’t really know my answer to this because it’s actually really stressful to watch. Then again, playing is another level of pressure and stress. Even though I’ve been able to do fairly well under those situations, I would not say it’s a feeling that I really enjoy [laughs].
In the Ohio State match when it did come down to my match, and I could tell that my body was already about to be done. I was just kind of like, “Why me, again?” It’s not exactly the kind of adrenaline rush you want, but at the same time, being in that situation presents the opportunity to clinch again. As stressful as it is, it’s a situation that once you’ve been in it a couple times, you get more comfortable — if that’s even possible [laughs].
TSD: I want to go back to a couple moments from the title match last year. You’re playing on Court 2, and you’re down in the second set 5-4, deuce, no advantage. It’s match point, for Oklahoma State to go up 3-1. You rally and win the point, and ultimately the match. Do you remember specific moments in big matches like that? If so, what was on your mind?
TD: Yeah, I remember being down match point. It helps to have video to look back on to make it all clearer. I don’t think at the time I was aware that we would have gone down 3-1. The way the courts were set up, it was just Carol [Zhao] and I playing next to each other. Carol was about to split sets, and again, I was just trying to stay on the court and try to win a couple games. At that point I’m not thinking, “I need to win this match.” If you start thinking like that, it’s too much pressure and it’s too big picture.
I was just thinking, “One point at a time, try to get a couple games back and let’s stay out here.” Then all of a sudden, I look up and I’m ahead in the second and eventually winning it. So it was kind of unintentional, but at the same time, it was really helpful to the team that I was able to get back into that match.
I also remember the crowd was really motivating me at that specific point in the match. I don’t think they were intending to do that, because I think there were over 1,000 Oklahoma State fans watching there (the match was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma). They were pretty brutal, sitting right behind me on the court. It usually helps me when people are cheering against me — it actually makes me play better. After getting that point, I remember being very pumped up and like, “Okay, you know what? I’m not done.”
TSD: In the third set, you’re serving 5-4, and you get broken quickly. You break back and get another chance to serve for the championship at 6-5. You go up 40-30 and have two points for the national championship on your racket — what’s going through your head?
TD: At that point, I knew how nervous I was, which was why I ended up slicing everything on my second match point. I was very in touch with my nerves, and I knew they weren’t going to go away, so I just had to find a way to play and overcome them. I didn’t really care if the point was pretty. You don’t look back and say, “I wish I had hit a beautiful winner to win the national championship.” You look back and say, “Yeah, we won it.”
TSD: Was that the most nervous you’ve ever been?
TD: Yeah [laughs].
TSD: You dropped to the floor after that point and your whole team mobbed you. What was that feeling like?
TD: It was probably the most relieved I’ve ever been. It was actually the most emotional swing I’ve ever experienced, I think, to be that nervous and hoping [opponent Vladica Babic] would miss the ball, and thinking that I was going to run everything down and make every shot, and when she finally missed, it was just the biggest rush of relief. I didn’t even mean to fall down, my body was just so exhausted that it was like, “Okay, you’re done.” Before my team rushed over to me — it took them like, three seconds to get there — but before they made it over, I just remember laying on the ground and looking up at the clouds and being like, “It’s over. We did it.”
TSD: Who was the coolest person that reached out to you after? Did you hear from any of your idols or big fans after winning that match?
TD: A lot of the alumni reached out to me, which was really cool. We have a thread that they use during the matches to cheer us on. Patrick McEnroe tweeted last year as well about my forehand slice, which cracked me up. There weren’t any specific people, but I just remember checking my phone after and my Twitter notifications were maxed out, Instagram notifications maxed out and I had like 150 text messages. It was just overwhelming love from everyone, which was pretty cool.
TSD: Your time at Stanford is finally coming to a close… What are your feelings about having two weeks of school left? Do you have plans post-graduation?
TD: It’s really kind of a surreal moment, even though I haven’t graduated yet, to think that all the hard work is about to pay off. I’m really excited to graduate. Four straight years of school here is very tough, at least it was for me. After graduation, I have a job in Redondo Beach where I’m going to be doing some business and financial stuff for Northrop Grumman. I want to go back home eventually, but I’m really excited to be in Redondo, and it’s a fun place to be at my age.
TSD: Where do you stand with tennis? Are you hanging up the rackets?
TD: I think I’ll teach and give some lessons down in SoCal. As far as playing, I think I’m going to take a little break. It’s been about 14 years with no time off, so I think I’ve earned it [laughs].
Contact Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu.