W. Tennis: Triumph in Athens

May 24, 2010, 12:44 a.m.
W. Tennis: Triumph in Athens
Chasing its 16th national championship, the No. 8 Stanford women's tennis team upset No. 1 Baylor in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinal on Friday in Athens, Ga. No. 2 UNC, No. 3 Florida and No. 5 Notre Dame round out the remaining Final Four teams. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

In one of the team’s biggest victories of the past several years, the No. 8 Stanford women’s tennis team upset the No. 1 Baylor Bears 4-2 on Saturday to return to the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.

“It was a major win to get our program back on track, and obviously, we need to follow it up with another one,” said head coach Lele Forood. “This is a team that has taken us out of the last two championships, and early both times, so it was very important for us to play them and beat them.”

Stanford is now the lowest seed left in the tournament, despite being the only one-loss team in the nation. Remaining with the Cardinal are No. 2 UNC, No. 3 Florida and No. 5 Notre Dame.

Apparently, recent history doesn’t mean much to the Cardinal. Baylor has knocked Stanford out of the NCAA Tournament each of the past two years. In 2008, the Bears recorded a 4-1 victory in the quarterfinals. Last year, Baylor again defeated Stanford 4-3 in the round of 16 to mark Stanford’s worst finish since 1998.

So now the team that was burdened with previous postseason disappointments is competing in the NCAA semifinals in search of its record 16th NCAA championship. Since 2001, Stanford has won five national titles, including a three-year streak from 2004 to 2006. That level of success has been exemplified at Athens, Ga. this year.

“This is a very comfortable place for us,” Forood said. “We’ve had a lot of success over the years, and I really embrace going back to Athens. We like the town, the whole atmosphere and we’ve had success here, so that is in everyone’s head.”

Stanford dominated the same way it has all year, relying on its three most consistent performers to come through for the team. For the 24th time in 25 matches, Stanford won the doubles point to start off, despite a strong challenge from Baylor. The third team of sophomore Veronica Li and junior Carolyn McVeigh breezed through an 8-3 stomping of their opponents.

Then the Bears bit back.

Baylor’s No. 2 team pulled away at the bitter end to record a 9-7 victory over Stanford’s freshman duo of Mallory Burdette and Stacey Tan after the two teams were tied 7-7.

It then came down to the top spot. Junior Hilary Barte and senior Lindsay Burdette came back from 4-1 down to take the lead at 6-5 before the Bears came back to force the tiebreaker. The nation’s No. 2 duo allowed Baylor only three points in the tiebreaker, as the Card won the match and claimed the doubles point.

With its usual 1-0 lead, Stanford turned to the singles matches. The team kept up the early momentum by jumping out to a 3-0 lead thanks to the play of two very familiar names. Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and ITA Rookie of the Year Mallory Burdette – ranked 33rd overall – came off the court first after beating No. 55 Taylor Ormond. After falling behind a break 4-2, Mallory rallied off 10 straight games to get a second-set bagel and the team’s first singles point.

The next player off the court was Li, owner of a straight-set 6-3, 6-4 victory over Baylor’s Karolina Filipiak. Li has a 26-7 record overall, good for fourth-best on the team, and her win put Stanford on the brink of a sweep. Three players have more than 20 dual match wins: Burdette, Li and the player who clinched the match, Stanford’s No. 1 Barte.

“To have consistently good performances,” Barte said, “to know that every time out, we’re going to give the best we have… I mean personally, that helps me know that I can do that too. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be tougher than the other team.”

After dropping points at the two and five position, Baylor was mounting a comeback. Only down 3-2, the Bears’ Csilla Borsanyi was leading Stanford’s Tan 3-6, 6-1, 5-2. But then Barte closed out a 7-5, 7-5 victory over No. 5 Lenka Broosova to give Stanford the win and reason enough to celebrate.

Ending Baylor’s 24-match win streak, Stanford returns to the NCAA semifinals with a measure of revenge and some renewed hope.

“We were tougher in the end, and that is what I am most proud of,” Barte said.

The Cardinal next faces No. 5 Notre Dame in the Fighting Irish’s second consecutive semifinal appearance. With a 26-3 overall record (7-0 in league play) Notre Dame got to this point by defeating Cal and Tennessee in Athens. It will be one of the nation’s most storied programs against a relative newcomer, as the Fighting Irish have only made one semifinal in team history before this year.

“We always thought we were championship material, and [Baylor] helped secure that belief,” Barte said. “Teams will be gunning for us, because they saw that we took down the No. 1-ranked team in the country, but I know we’re up for the challenge.”

With the No. 1 seed vanquished and old ghosts eliminated, Stanford’s path to another NCAA championship suddenly looks to be very open.

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