Half of Stanford’s singles lineup has been to the NCAA quarterfinals before — and beyond. But while it was senior Kristie Ahn, sophomore Krista Hardebeck and junior Ellen Tsay that had experienced the pressure and stakes of a deep national tournament run before, it was the newcomers — freshmen Taylor Davidson, Caroline Doyle and Carol Zhao — that looked most at home on Saturday as No. 11 Stanford (20-2, 8-2 Pac-12) took down No. 3 Virginia (24-6, 12-2 ACC), 4-2, to clinch a spot in the Final Four.
With the Cardinal leading 3-2 late but Ahn engaged in a long battle on court one, the match ultimately came down to Zhao on court three, who had trailed 6-5 in the third set before she battled back to force her second tiebreak of the afternoon against Virgnia’s Stephanie Nauta. After having taken the first tiebreak earlier, the freshman wasn’t going to let the second slip away from her.
“I looked around and it looked like it was probably going to come down to this tiebreak if I could get it done,” Zhao said. “I was trying to play aggressively and play the match on my terms instead of letting her dictate the points, and I think that was important. When it comes down to a tight moment like that, you have to really take control of the points.”
“I’ve noticed through the year that when she really has to get it done, she’s a more focused player and brings a really high level of tennis,” added head coach Lele Forood. “And she absolutely brought a really high level of tennis to that last tiebreaker.”
Zhao took the early lead in the tiebreak and never looked back. When all was said and done, she stood on court three with a 7-6 (1), 7-6 (4) victory that not only won her the match, but advanced Stanford to the national semifinal for the second consecutive season.
Had Zhao not clinched the second-set tiebreaker or come back to force the issue in the first place, the Cardinal could have been looking at a different result after an easy doubles point turned into a singles round that could have been trouble for the Cardinal.
Although Davidson had a smooth ride in her match as she downed 76th-ranked Rachel Pierson 6-4, 6-1 in straight sets, that was just about all that came easily in singles for Stanford. Even Doyle’s win for the final singles point of the afternoon was in a third set after Caryssa Peretz extended the match with a second-set triumph.
Given that Ahn had already lost her first set 7-5 and was facing a tough 4-4 battle on court one, it was conceivable that Zhao could have been looking at a 3-3 tie and much more pressure for the win in her third set.
In addition, Hardebeck dropped her second match in a row in straight sets, as her 6-4, 6-2 setback on court two compounded with Tsay’s straight-set loss on court five to give Virginia a fighting chance in the match.
But at the end of the day, the NCAA Tournament is all about just finding a way to win, and the steadfast freshmen on the squad certainly found that way to give Stanford the edge on Saturday. And with the win, Stanford advanced to the national semifinals for the second straight season and set itself up for a date with North Carolina on Monday with a berth in the national title match on the line.
“Yes, [our veterans] have been here before and they’ve won a title, but our freshmen are eager to win a title,” said Forood on the experience of the players that had been in this position last year. “It’s not too much about the experience thing; it’s about putting six talented players out on the court and coming away with four points.”
That’s certainly been the case so far this tournament for Stanford, and it will look to rinse and repeat on Monday against the No. 7 Tar Heels at 10 a.m. in Athens.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at [email protected].