Women’s tennis upsets Gators, moves on to 33rd NCAA quarterfinal

May 20, 2016, 1:29 a.m.

Yet another chapter was written in one of the great rivalries in college sports on Thursday, as 15th-seeded Stanford women’s tennis (17-5, 9-1 Pac-12) knocked off second-seed Florida (23-3, 13-0 SEC) to advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships in Tulsa, OK. 

Three times the teams have met in the postseason since 2009, and three times the final score has read 4-3 either way. This year’s meeting was no different, as junior Taylor Davidson provided the clincher for the Cardinal with the score tied 3-3 in a dramatic dual match that could not have possibly been any closer.

Stanford found itself a step behind from the get-go, dropping the doubles point with losses at the Nos. 1 and 3 spots. While play began outdoors, rain forced play to move inside after nearly an hour delay. The pause did not halt the Gators’ momentum, as third-ranked Brooke Austin/Kourtney Keegan overwhelmed fifth-ranked Taylor Davidson/Caroline Doyle en route to a comfortable 6-2 victory at the top spot, as the Stanford pair of Krista Hardebeck and Caroline Lampl fell on Court 3.

While a 0-1 deficit heading into singles play against one of the deepest singles lineups in the country might be daunting to most teams, it was a position the Cardinal were all too familiar with. The team had dropped the doubles point to the Gators in their non-conference match in late February, before coming storming back to win, 4-3, and had repeated the feat against No. 1 Cal for its biggest wins of the season.

The Cardinal gained a quick point from their stalwart No. 1, Carol Zhao, following a comprehensive straight-set victory over Brooke Austin, the No. 4 player in the nation. Zhao — ranked only 25th in the country, due in part to her absence for a large portion of the season — improved her record to 12-1 against Florida over the course of her career.

Freshman Caroline Lampl cruised to victory at the No. 5 spot, putting the seal on her match in style with a massive forehand down-the-line winner on match point to win, 6-4, 6-4 and put the Stanford up 2-1. Despite taking the lead, the tide of the match was clearly in Florida’s favor, as the Gators had taken the first set in all remaining matches, including a pair of tiebreak wins on Courts 2 and 3.

The Gators would regain the lead following Brianna Morgan’s emphatic 7-6(4), 6-3 victory over No. 40 Caroline Doyle at the No. 3 spot, and No. 40 Kourtney Keegan’s three-set victory over No. 100 Krista Hardebeck at the No. 4 spot, leaving Stanford in must-win situations on Courts 2 and 6.

Perhaps the most pivotal singles match occurred at the No. 6 spot, between Stanford freshman Melissa Lord and Florida sophomore Anna Danilina, the No. 63 player in the country, who had already defeated Lord twice this season. After taking a set lead, Danilina seemingly had the match on her racket, serving at 5-4, 30-15 in the second set.

Lord recovered spectacularly, however, moving her opponent and limiting her mistakes to break and force a tiebreaker, where she won seven points straight to force the third. With her opponent mentally shaken in the final set, Lord raced out to a 5-2 lead, securing the win with a huge first serve up the tee on a pivotal deuce point (no advantage).

With the dual tied at three matches apiece, all eyes turned to Davidson on Court 2 for the second time this week, as the junior had clinched the team’s second-round match against Texas A&M just four days earlier. After losing the first set in a tiebreak to No. 11 Belinda Woolcock, Davidson had come roaring back to win the second set 6-3 and even the match, with the third set deciding which team would advance.

The enormity of the moment was clearly at play in the final set, as the players broke each other back and forth in the first five games. With both squads looking on and exploding after every point, Davidson finally consolidated her break with a hold of serve to take a 4-2 lead, and immediately broke again to make it 5-2.

The drama didn’t end there, though — at 40-30, Davidson threw away two match points with consecutive double faults, granting Woolcock a gift back into the match. Davidson recovered impressively in the next game, however, gaining 3 more match points following a lengthy rally at 15-30. A wide groundstroke from Woolcock finally sealed the match, sending the Cardinal into a frenzy as they mobbed Davidson for the second consecutive match.

“I think having short-term memory in that situation helps, because I did not want to serve [Woolcock] the game. I think that I had broken her three times earlier in that set so I had a lot of confidence,” said Davidson of the way the match ended.

“There really is no choice in that situation, unless you just want to go down in flames and I don’t want that regret for the rest of my life.”

Despite struggling early in the season, even dropping under .500 for the first time in program history, everything has come together in the past month for the Cardinal, culminating in yet another classic in the Stanford-Florida rivalry.

“Playing Florida is always an amazing experience. They took it to us in doubles, but we had great spirit, heart, and attitude in singles to come back and win,” said head coach Lele Forood.

The Cardinal have weapons across the board: Zhao has shown time and again that she can beat anyone in the country, Hardebeck is still in peak form, having won 19 of her last 21 and Davidson and Lord have displayed a mental fortitude without which the team’s season would already be over.

With Florida — the highest seed on Stanford’s side of the bracket — sent packing, the team is now a serious threat to make a run at the 18th title in program history. And if anyone on the college tennis scene wasn’t paying attention to the 15th-seed from out West, they surely are now.  

The Cardinal will next take on 10th-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Tulsa.

Contact Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu. Shame Alexa Philippou for betting against the Cardinal at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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