After three victories against lesser opponents, the Stanford men’s tennis team faced adversity for the first time this year at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships in Charlottesville, Va. this weekend.
Nine of the top 10 teams in the nation qualified for the prestigious tournament, which serves as a barometer for the best teams in the country and a preview of the NCAA Championships in May.
On Friday, No. 8 Texas blanked No. 9 Stanford 4-0 in the first round of the sixteen-team tournament. The Longhorns controlled the match from start to finish.
For a team that has its sights set on an NCAA title, it was a disappointing start to the weekend.
“They came out very inspired,” said Stanford head coach John Whitlinger. “I think they remembered losing to us at last year’s Indoors.”
Whitlinger refused to blame the loss on the fact that the match was played indoors, but he did suggest that it can be difficult for players to adjust after months of outdoor tennis.
“Everything is controlled indoors,” he said. “There’s no wind or sun. It definitely benefits some styles more than others, but it’s still a tennis court.”
The Cardinal never recovered from a clean sweep in the doubles matches. Dimitar Kutrovsky and Josh Zavala of Texas upset Stanford’s No. 1 ranked doubles team of sophomores Bradley Klahn and Ryan Thacher, 8-6.
“They’ll [Klahn and Thacher] admit that they could have played better,” Whitlinger said. “But I’m not worried about those guys. They’re so good.”
The singles slate was equally disappointing for Stanford. Thacher, junior Alex Clayton and senior Richard Wire lost their matches in straight sets. Klahn, freshman Matt Kandath and senior Greg Hirshman were also losing when the match was suspended.
After losing, Stanford was sent to the consolation bracket for the rest of the weekend.
“I was interested to see how our guys would bounce back after a loss like that,” Whitlinger said.
“No one was happy on Friday night,” Hirshman added. “But a loss at this point in the season can motivate you and force a little bit of introspection.”
Hirshman pointed out that USC lost in the quarterfinals of last year’s indoor championships, but went on to win the NCAA title.
“No one remembers that USC lost in Charlottesville, they remember the national title,” Hirshman said. “We can win the national title.”
Stanford rebounded with its two most impressive victories of the year against No. 30 Fresno State on Saturday and No. 10 Kentucky on Sunday.
The Cardinal swept the doubles matches against Fresno State and quickly clinched a 4-0 victory. No Stanford player lost a set in the singles matches.
Sunday’s match with Kentucky seemed like it would be a tough one to win. Kentucky plays indoor tennis regularly and defeated No. 2 Virginia the weekend before the National Indoors.
“We knew it was going to be a test,” Whitlinger admitted.
In the top doubles slot, Klahn and Thacher won their doubles match 8-4 against Brad Cox and Eric Quigley. Wire and Clayton clinched the doubles point with a breezy 8-1 victory over Kentucky’s Alberto Gonzalez and Alex Lambropoulos.
Whitlinger expressed excitement about Stanford’s doubles teams, especially because of the recent play of the upperclassman tandem of Wire and Clayton.
“If they can continue to do that,” he said, “I’ll feel really good about our doubles heading forward.”
In the sixth singles slot, Hirshman played his best tennis of the weekend and made quick work of Graham Dyce, 6-1, 6-1.
Thacher beat Cox 6-4, 6-4 to give Stanford a 3-0 lead.
The top two matches were tight battles. In the top spot, Klahn eventually fell to Quigley, 6-2, 7-6. Clayton went to three sets with Alex Musialek, but the match was never finished because the team’s win had already been clinched.
It looked like Kentucky might stage a comeback when Gonzalez defeated Stanford freshman Matt Kandath, 6-4, 7-5, and made the overall match score 3-2.
But the senior Wire came through in the fourth singles spot with a victory and clinched the match for the Cardinal, 4-2.
Stanford finished the weekend with a 2-1 record and with a better idea of what it needs to work on to become NCAA champion.
“We’re only at mile eight or nine in the marathon,” Hirshman said. “What matters is where you are at mile 26.2.”
Stanford now has a busy weekend, with home matches against Boise State on Friday and Cal on Saturday.