Now it gets interesting.
Tonight, the eighth-seeded Stanford men’s tennis team hosts ninth-seeded Texas A&M in the NCAA round of 16–and there might not be two hotter teams in the country right now than the Cardinal and the Aggies.
Stanford (20-5, 5-1 Pac-10) comes in riding a 12-game winning streak and handily won its first two matches of the tournament, defeating Army 4-0 and No. 25 Washington 4-1.
Texas A&M (29-5, 5-1 Big-12) recently claimed the Big-12 tournament championship, defeating Oklahoma in the finals, and it hasn’t given up a single point in its last five matches. The Aggies also had an auspicious start to their tournament, defeating both No. 34 Louisiana State and Alcorn State by counts of 4-0.
Senior Greg Hirshman expects the match to be as good as advertised.
“I haven’t looked into a lot of their players, but I know that we’re eight and they’re nine, so it’s going to be a tough match,” Hirshman said. “When you play a team in the top-10 it really comes down to a couple of points here and there. Not just in individual matches, but in the entire team match.
“When you look back to the [ITA National Indoor Championship], where we went 1-2, every match was 3-3 in singles and came down to who won the doubles point,” Hirshman continued. “It’s going to be one of those matches that it comes down to a couple of points and I think having the home court will be a big help in getting those key points.”
Despite the tough competition ahead, there are plenty of good signs for the Cardinal. Four teams that Stanford has defeated remain in the field–No. 2 USC, No. 12 UCLA, No. 14 Cal and unseeded Tulsa, which defeated No. 13 Texas in one of the only upsets of the early rounds.
That being said, all five of the Stanford’s losses came at the hands of teams still alive in the tourney. Perhaps the best sign for the Cardinal is the advantage Hirshman intimated: this is their court.
Stanford has played exceedingly well at home this season, going 15-1 with a lone loss coming in a nail-biter to second-seeded USC. Hirshman believes that playing at home will play a huge factor going forward.
“I think getting a lot of people out supporting us will definitely help,” Hirshman said. “Even if the team is slightly worse, fans may inspire them to get the win and the reality is that there is no team, if any, that is much better than us in this whole tournament. That’s why home court advantage is so big in a lot of pro sports. When teams are roughly evenly matched, seemingly little factors make a big difference.”
Both Hirshman and head coach John Whitlinger are looking forward to playing in front of bigger crowds, not just because they can lift a team to victory, but because the matches provide some of the more memorable experiences that a young player can have.
Even in last weekend’s matches–especially against Washington–the crowd at Taube Tennis Center was one of the loudest of the season, and the crowds will only get bigger if Stanford keeps advancing.
Whitlinger talked about the last time Stanford hosted the NCAAs.
“I know in 2006 how inspiring it was when the place was full and we played Duke,” said Whitlinger. “It’s something that the guys will never forget…I hope we get to the point where the guys can experience something like that.”
Despite having optimism on its home courts, the team is also painfully aware of what happens if it loses. Stanford has lost in the round of 16 in both of the past two seasons–to UCLA last year and eventual champion USC the year before that. As a senior, Hirshman views this tournament as especially meaningful.
“We’re going so strong right now, but if we lose on Thursday, it’s over,” he said. “We’d have nothing. Especially for the seniors on the team–for me, Alex [Clayton] and Ted [Kelly]–if we lose that’s the end of college tennis for us. That’s obviously not something we want to happen, and there’s no better way to go out than on a win.”
“If you think back to when Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open and then retired, he went out on top. That’s what Ted, Alex and I are really looking at as seniors. Everyone wants to win and show what all our hard work was for, but it is especially meaningful for us seniors.”
If the Cardinal manages to win tonight, it most likely will play top-seeded Virginia–a team that has not lost all season–in the next round.
There will be men’s tournament action all day today at the Taube Tennis Center, with matches starting at 9 a.m. and culminating with the Stanford-Texas A&M match at 6 p.m. tonight.