It wasn’t pretty, but Stanford women’s tennis got the job done.
No. 15 seed Stanford (18-5, 9-1 Pac-12) pulled out a nail-biting 4-3 victory over tenth-seeded Michigan (23-7, 10-1 Big Ten) in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships on Saturday afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The back-and-forth match could hardly have been closer: The deciding match came down to a tiebreaker in the third set at the No. 3 spot, in which junior Caroline Doyle ultimately prevailed 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (4).
The hard-fought win over Michigan is Stanford’s third consecutive 4-3 win in the NCAA tournament, following victories over second-seeded Florida in the round of 16 and Texas A&M in the second round.
The anxiety-inducing scores are partly due to inconsistent play on the Cardinal’s part, but also reflect the talent and competitiveness present throughout the NCAA draw.
Stanford has lost the doubles point in the last five out of six matches, including against Michigan (but won all five matches nonetheless). The trend of rocky doubles manifested in an unusually painful fashion (for Cardinal fans) on Saturday afternoon, as Stanford was in position to clinch the doubles point before ultimately falling short.
Michigan secured the first doubles win, as Stanford’s junior Carol Zhao and freshman Melissa Lord fell 6-2 at the No. 2 spot. Stanford responded with a 6-4 win by senior Krista Hardebeck and freshman Caroline Lampl at the No. 3 spot.
— Alexa Corse (@AlexaCorse) May 21, 2016
In the deciding doubles match on Court 1, Stanford’s junior duo of Taylor Davidson and Caroline Doyle held a comfortable 5-2 lead but proved unable to clinch the win. Stanford had two match points, with Davidson serving at 40-30, 5-4. But Davidson and Doyle seemed to become their own worst opponents, hitting a string of double faults that was particularly unusual given that the duo is the fifth-ranked doubles team nationally.
Davidson double-faulted on both match points at 5-4. After Michigan held for 6-5, Doyle suffered four consecutive double faults to hand Michigan the doubles point with a 7-5 win on Court 1.
However, Stanford managed to shake off the heartbreaking loss and rebounded once singles play began. The Cardinal claimed five of six first sets.
Freshman Melissa Lord continued to impose her will at the No. 6 spot and put Stanford on the board in a 6-1, 6-0 rout.
On Court 4, senior Krista Hardebeck played a crucial role in maintaining Stanford’s momentum as she steamrolled over Michigan’s Alex Najarian to a 6-0, 4-1 lead. However, Hardebeck then lost four consecutive games. Najarian had the upper hand after breaking Hardebeck’s serve to take a 5-4 lead in the second set.
Hardebeck, ranked No. 100 nationally, has amassed a record of clinching victories in pressure-filled moments over her four seasons at Stanford, and she rose to the moment yet again. Hardebeck won the next three games (including defending four break points while serving at 5-5) to close the set 7-5. Her win marked Stanford’s second singles victory of the day and her 20th win out of her last 22 singles matches.
Although Hardebeck ultimately pulled out her match, her temporary loss of momentum coincided with similar shaky patches for her Stanford teammates still on court.
Junior Carol Zhao, the 2015 NCAA singles runner-up, never found her rhythm and fell 6-4, 6-2 to Michigan’s Ronit Yurovsky, who is ranked 15th nationally.
Davidson, Doyle and Lampl each lost the second set despite winning the first, at the Nos. 2, 3 and 5 spots, respectively.
Davidson’s best opportunity to clinch the win was when she was serving at 40-30, 3-3 in the second set. The 46th-ranked Davidson failed to hold, however, and Michigan’s Brienne Minor, No. 19 nationally, seized the momentum to clinch the second set 6-4 and ultimately win 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
Lampl kept Stanford’s hopes alive by jumping to a 5-0 lead in the third set and ultimately tying the dual match score at 3-3 with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 victory over Mira Ruder-Hook.
The deciding point fell to the match between Doyle and Michigan’s Kate Fahey on Court 3, where Doyle, ranked No. 67 nationally, had amassed a 3-0 lead in the third set. Doyle lost the next four games and was on the defensive as Fahey, ranked No. 68 nationally, dictated with deep groundstrokes corner-to-corner. Serving at 3-4, the left-handed Doyle started hitting her forehand more aggressively and kept herself in the match by holding at 40-15 for 4-4.
Fahey and Doyle each began playing inconsistently, alternating between dictating aggressively and succumbing to soft shots or unforced errors seemingly induced by the pressure-filled moment. Doyle was up 40-15 while serving at 5-6 but ultimately had to defend a match point at deuce (no advantage), which then sent the third set to a tiebreaker.
Doyle relied on her ability to consistently hit deep, heavy groundstrokes high over the net while Fahey suffered a few unforced errors early in the tiebreaker. Doyle took a 5-0 lead but then committed a few errors of her own, including two double faults eerily reminiscent of her doubles loss, as her lead narrowed to 6-4.
Serving for the match, Doyle secured Stanford’s spot in the Final Four in a well-played final point during which she stepped forward into her shots and imposed her will from within the baseline.
“I got off to a pretty quick start, and then she stepped up her game and I got a little too defensive,” Doyle said about the third-set in the post-match press conference. “Then I was just trying to get the point started with a first serve and really work the point.”
While Doyle and her teammates experienced moments of shaky play, the Cardinal nonetheless overcame a worthy opponent to earn a ‘W’ for the program.
“We’ve got some veteran players,” head coach Lele Forood said. “They’ve played in big matches. They know how to get it done usually, when it really counts.”
The Cardinal face a formidable challenge in the semifinals, as Stanford will square off against sixth-seeded Vanderbilt on Monday, May 23, at 10 a.m. PT. Vanderbilt, the defending national champion, was the nation’s top-seeded team at the season’s start and dealt Stanford a 4-1 loss on January 30, while Stanford was playing without Carol Zhao in its lineup.
Contact Alexa Corse at corsea ‘at’ stanford.edu.