Florida beats Stanford 4-3 to capture women’s tennis championship

May 25, 2011, 4:00 a.m.

Last year, sophomore Mallory Burdette was the heroine of the Stanford Cardinal, clinching the 4-3 victory over the Florida Gators to win the 2010 Women’s Tennis National Championship. This year was a different story. With the match score tied at 3-3, the pressure of victory once again fell on Burdette’s shoulders. Despite saving four match points, Burdette lost to Gator sophomore Lauren Embree 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6), and the 2011 national championship went to Florida with a final score of 4-3.

“Obviously it’s not as fun being on this side,” Burdette said, fighting back tears. “But I had my game plan when I went out there today, and I executed pretty well for most of the match… I’m pretty proud of the way I played, but obviously I came up a little short.”

Florida beats Stanford 4-3 to capture women's tennis championship
A year after winning the decisive match of the NCAA Championship, Stanford sophomore Mallory Burdette fell to Florida's Lauren Embree 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) with the NCAA title on the line. Burdette had a one set lead and later led the third 4-0, but was unable to hold on (MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily).

Stanford’s loss ended a 184-match winning streak at the Taube Tennis Center that began in February 1999.

The title came down to Burdette’s roller-coaster match after Stanford relinquished a 3-1 lead. After dropping the doubles point, the Cardinal quickly won five first sets in singles at the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 matches and looked poised to win its 17th national title. Instead, junior Veronica Li and senior Carolyn McVeigh each lost three-setters, meaning the match came down to Burdette vs. Embree on court two.

Missing from Stanford’s lineup was Pac-10 champion Kristie Ahn, sidelined from the championship match with an ankle injury that was re-tweaked in her semifinal match against Baylor. With her on the sidelines, the doubles lineup was almost entirely new. There was still Hilary Barte and Burdette teaming up at the top, but the second team consisted of freshman Nicole Gibbs and Li, moving up from her usual spot at No. 3 doubles. Carolyn McVeigh, Li’s usual partner, was paired with sophomore Stacey Tan.

“It’s hard to lose an impact player like [Ahn],” said Stanford head coach Lele Forood. “But we felt comfortable with the lineup we were putting out today. There was no question [Ahn] was going to take up space. We were going to play with six healthy players for a chance to win… we felt good about that, and we came pretty close.”

The new pairings combined with the Gators’ mastery of doubles play meant the day started poorly for the Cardinal (28-1). All Stanford pairs struggled to get points despite regularly getting to deuce or earning advantage points. The team appeared timid initially, letting Florida (31-1) run out to early leads. The match was eventually clinched when the Gators won the No. 3 doubles.

In singles, the Cardinal came out reinvigorated and grabbed momentum early.  On court one, Barte—in her final dual match in a Cardinal uniform—channeled four years of energy into a truly dominant performance. Her opponent, Allie Will, rarely gained momentum in the match and as Will’s shrieks echoed around the stadium, Barte, the nation’s No. 3 player, rode the crowd’s energy to a  6-2, 6-4 victory and Stanford’s first point of the day.

Florida beats Stanford 4-3 to capture women's tennis championship
Stanford's No. 1 player, senior Hilary Barte, began the Cardinal comeback with a dominating 6-2, 6-4 win, getting the Cardinal on the board (MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily).

Over on court two, Burdette ran into early trouble. In a difficult matchup, Burdette’s hard-hitting and accurate baseline game was matched against the defensive- and movement-focused game of Embree. Her Gator opponent frequently returned consecutive balls and continued to force Burdette to hit extra shots. Despite winning the first game, Burdette found herself in a 1-5 hole.

Gibbs quickly got the crowd behind her on court three with loud, demonstrative celebrations. She struggled in her semifinal match against Baylor, but in this match, she was back to her winning ways. She was second off the court with a 6-4, 7-5 score, putting Stanford ahead 2-1. With five of Stanford’s players winning their first set, the day was looking positive for the Cardinal.

Back on court two, Burdette found her top game and orchestrated an incredible rally back from 1-5 down. Reeling off six games in a row, Burdette used good net play to take the first set 7-5.

Meanwhile, McVeigh was locked in a tight first set at No. 6. She and Florida’s Olivia Janowicz played to a tiebreaker in the first set and McVeigh staved off a set point and eventually pulled out the set to a loud cheer from the crowd.

Tan, also on the outside courts, was already in the third set of her match, having lost the first and dominated in the second when McVeigh wrapped up her first set. The crucial game came at 4-4 for Tan. Her opponent, the Gators’ Joanna Mather, called a ball out. After the umpire overturned the ball, Tan had a game point instead of a break point. Despite losing the next point, Mather botched an overhead to give Tan a second game point. Mather again dug in and won the next point, but Tan hit a massive swinging volley from the service line to win her third game point. She capitalized on this one to gain the 5-4 lead and all momentum was hers.

Tan earned four match points in the next game, taking the match 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. The win also gave Stanford a 3-1 lead, putting the Cardinal one point away from its second national title in as many years.

After Tan’s win, though, it was all downhill for the Cardinal. Burdette dropped the second set 6-3 on court two, and Li, after winning the first set, lost the next two to Florida’s Alex Cercone. That narrowed the Cardinal lead to 3-2.

Burdette started the third set on fire, giving Stanford fans a glimpse of the end line and the national title. Up 4-0 and showing no signs of slowing down until a sudden hiccup occurred, Burdette lost control of her groundstrokes and was broken at love. Suddenly, Embree was there to pounce. As Burdette’s energy waned, Embree fought all the way back to take a 5-4 lead before Burdette won another game—but only after fighting off two match points.

Janowicz proved too tough in the third set, and outlasted McVeigh, 6-7(8-6), 6-3, 6-1 and all eyes in the stadium turned to Burdette and Embree. With both players exhausted from long rallies at the baseline, the match was tied 6-6 and headed to a tiebreaker with the NCAA Championship on the line.

Florida beats Stanford 4-3 to capture women's tennis championship
Freshman Nicole Gibbs, above, won her No. 3 singles match handily. Gibbs plays in her first individual NCAA Tournament match today (MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily).

Burdette went up 2-0 on a powerful forehand and a brilliant low pick-up volley. A few unforced errors later, and all of a sudden Embree had a 4-2 lead. Again, Burdette fought back using two volleys to tie the score at 4-4. After failing to return a fast serve to the body and sending a tired forehand long, Embree had two championship points. Burdette saved both again, bringing the score to 6-6, with both players needing to win by two to earn the championship.

Burdette controlled the next point and had an overhead to give her the lead and a championship point. However the overhead caught the frame of her racket and went into the net. Ultimately, Burdette lost the final point of the season on a forehand that sailed long. As Stanford fans leaned back in shock, the few Gator fans who made the trip began their cheering.

Stanford’s record-breaking streak ended in fittingly dramatic fashion for a team with such an impressive winning streak. The bar remains at 184 undefeated home wins dating back to February 12, 1999—over a decade of dominance at Taube Tennis Center.

Forood says she’s pleased with the way her players battled through injury and adversity, and enjoyed the home support.

“It was an incredible match,” she said. “It was the most electric atmosphere I think I’ve experienced in a college tennis match. It was an amazing day, and we just came up a little short today.”

When asked about the streak, Forood believed it wasn’t the most important thing the team lost today.

“We know it’s not going to go on to infinity,” she said. “At some point we’re going to take a loss here, and we’ll just start over again. It happened to be today. The streak doesn’t mean a lot to us.  It’s interesting, but it’s not a motivating thing.”

For Barte, the match stands as the last team competition of her illustrious career.

“With this team especially, we had a lot of mountains to climb, and we climbed them,” she said. “The memories that I’m going to take away from the team, I’m going to have them for the rest of my life.”

Despite the loss in the finals, Stanford still brought home a few accolades for the night. Barte was named to the top spot of the All-Tournament Team, Gibbs earned the third spot and McVeigh earned the sixth spot. In doubles, Barte and Burdette earned first spot All-Tournament Team.

Stanford’s season isn’t completely over. No. 3 Barte, Gibbs, Ahn, Burdette and Tan are all slated to play in the NCAA Individual Championships beginning today—though Ahn may not compete because of her injury. Barte and Burdette, the No. 4 doubles team in the nation, and Ahn and Gibbs are scheduled to compete in doubles starting Thursday.


Nate Adams contributed to this report.


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