The Stanford men’s tennis team takes the court this weekend to play two more nationally ranked opponents No. 31 Tulsa and No. 56 Arizona.
Stanford head coach John Whitlinger has repeatedly said that he believes that the string of matches against top competition can only help his young team develop. Even as the team has gone 2-5 in the past seven contests, there have been flashes of brilliance.
Last Friday, the Cardinal hung tough with No. 2 USC. The Trojans needed an unlikely third-set comeback to edge the Card, 4-2. Then, on Saturday, the Cardinal blasted No. 16 UCLA, 6-1, showing a glimpse of the dominant team Whitlinger believes it can be.
When asked about the recent tough matches, Whitlinger seemed positive.
“Every match we lost, we were close,” he said. “And I think the guys are confident that they can play with anybody.”
However, the numerous matches against top opponents have taken their toll on the team, and the scrappy Tulsa team (14-5, 5-0 Conference USA) coming into town this afternoon is unlikely to offer much respite.
The Tulsa Owls have dominated Conference USA play, posting an impressive 5-0 conference record. The Owls have beaten top-10 teams like No. 7 Texas and will be looking for redemption after a disappointing 4-3 loss to in-state rival Oklahoma last week.
Today’s match has all the makings of an upset.
Then, on Sunday, the Card travels to Arizona to face off against the Wildcats. Arizona (8-9, 0-2 Pac-10) is coming off a disappointing start to conference play last week, losing at Oregon and at Washington. The Wildcats have perhaps underperformed this season, but they will be hoping to catch the Cardinal off-guard and notch their first conference victory of the season.
The weekend stand is important for setting the tone for the last month of Stanford’s regular season. Postseason play begins with the Pac-10 championships at the end of April, so the team is running out of opportunities to get back on the winning trail.
It is tough to say which Cardinal team will show up. Will it be the embattled squad that has played an endless string of tough matches over the past month, or will it be the team fans saw last Saturday against UCLA?
The key may be how the Card starts the matches.
Whitlinger and the team discussed how they had gotten off to a number of slow starts in the past month, falling behind against teams like USC, Baylor and Florida. That pattern changed last Saturday against UCLA.
“We talked about the importance of getting a fast start before the match,” he said. “And the guys came out and did it.”
There have been a number of consistent performers for the Cardinal.
Senior Greg Hirshman has posted an impressive 9-2 record at the No. 5 spot with the type of reliable play every team needs in the lower half of the lineup to make a run in the postseason come May.
The No. 1 doubles team of juniors Bradley Klahn and Ryan Thacher continues to roll, winning their last eight matches and the recent Pacific Coast Doubles Tournament en route to a 27-4 record.
However, players elsewhere have been less consistent, and for the Cardinal to make a run, other players will need to step up.
The level of competition in the season’s final stretch should be less intense, and this weekend’s contests may show what Stanford’s young team has learned from the topsy-turvy month it just endured.
Stanford faces Tulsa at 5 p.m. today and Arizona State on Sunday at noon.