Down a set and facing match point, junior Taylor Davidson and the Stanford Cardinal’s hopes of an NCAA title were quickly fading.
On Court 2, Oklahoma State’s No. 44-ranked Vladica Babic had a formidable 6-3, 5-4 lead over Davidson, who found herself having to rely on a serve that had been shaky throughout the tournament. At 40-40, no advantage, Babic was just a point away from securing a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead for the Cowgirls.
Davidson hit a big first serve, winning the 16-shot rally, and ultimately the match, as the Cardinal (20-5, 9-1 Pac-12) mounted an improbable comeback to win the 2016 NCAA Championship.
“Especially when it’s been three years since the last one, it’s very satisfying,” said head coach Lele Forood of the team’s first title since 2013 and its 18th in program history.
The nail-biting final ended a wild tournament run in which Stanford repeatedly defied the odds to stay alive. Despite their lowly 15th-seed, the Cardinal had snuck their way through the tournament with a series of close victories over Texas A&M, No. 2 Florida, No. 10 Michigan and No. 6 Vanderbilt. Stanford had suffered bouts of inconsistent play, but in every round, key players stepped up to lead Stanford to the NCAA final.
On the other side of the draw, 12th-seed Oklahoma State (29-5, 9-0 Big-12) seemed to be enjoying a nearly perfect tournament run. The team was riding an 18-match winning streak and had upset No. 5 Georgia, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 1 Cal on the way to the final.
Oklahoma State also had a massive home-court advantage in Tulsa, just an hour east of the Cowgirls’ home in Stillwater. Approximately 700 locals, proudly sporting traffic-cone orange fan gear, filled the Michael D. Case Tennis Center to support the local favorite’s attempt at a program-first NCAA title.
When Stanford dropped the doubles point, it seemed like the Cardinal would be limited to solid but not outstanding play yet again. In the semifinal, Oklahoma State had vanquished No. 1 Cal’s doubles, and their doubles strength was on full display again in the final.
After a quick win on Court 3, Oklahoma State jumped to an imposing 4-1 lead on Court 1 and thwarted a late comeback from Stanford’s junior duo of Davidson and Caroline Doyle, ultimately winning 6-3 to secure the always-crucial doubles point for the Cowgirls.
Oklahoma State came out on fire in singles play, dictating points and keeping Stanford players running corner to corner on the defensive. Stanford claimed only two out of six first sets, as Doyle and Hardebeck each took the first set 6-4 on Courts 3 and 4, respectively.
No. 100 Hardebeck stayed in control to defeat Oklahoma State’s Kelsey Laurente 6-4, 6-4, tying the dual match score at 1-1.
The only remaining starter from Stanford’s 2013 title run ended her illustrious career on a high note, winning 21 of her last 24 matches for the Cardinal.
“She’s had a phenomenal season,” said Forood of Hardebeck’s final year. “It was such a pleasure to see that we were going to get such an incredible performance by her this year, because it started to make things more possible for us seeing ourselves as potential champions…Today she was first on the court with a win for us, and that was really important.”
While Hardebeck played at the high level that has made her a major contributor this season, the rest of the Cardinal’s matches were full of ups and downs.
No. 25-ranked Zhao, the 2015 NCAA singles runner-up, was poised to force a third set after breaking Oklahoma’s Katarina Adamovic for 5-5, saving two match points in the process. However, Adamovic, ranked No. 47 nationally, closed the match 7-5 to put Oklahoma State up 2-1 in the dual match tally.
On Court 2, Davidson had trouble stepping forward during rallies and seemed fatigued from over a week of intense play. However, she found a way to break Babic at 5-5 and held for 7-5 to force a third set.
“We had lost first sets at Nos. 5 and 6 at that point, but I really felt good that we were going to get ourselves back into those matches,” said Forood. “We needed to find some other wins. That was very pivotal, Taylor’s match.”
Stanford’s shot at victory remained in doubt as Oklahoma State’s Viktoriya Lushkova forced a third set and won in convincing fashion against No. 67-ranked Doyle on Court 3. Lushkova, ranked No. 66 in the country, had amassed a 17-match winning streak coming into the match, while Doyle was mired in a downturn and had struggled to only one singles win in the NCAA tournament so far.
Though Doyle’s 6-4, 4-6, 1-6 loss made the score 3-1 in favor of Oklahoma State, the tides of the match had begun to turn. Davidson, Caroline Lampl and Melissa Lord had all gained early breaks of serve in their respective third sets, with Stanford needing all three matches for the victory.
On Court 5, freshman Caroline Lampl seized the momentum after being edged 4-6 in the first set. Lampl rediscovered her characteristic aggressive shot-making in the second, taking the set 6-3.
In the final set, Lampl worked her way to a 5-3 lead, going up 40-15 on her opponent’s serve to earn three match points. She would need just one, however, as Stresnakova’s final backhand flew wide to make the match score 3-2 in favor of the Cowgirls.
The win concluded a perfect 5-0 postseason for Lampl (her first match was uncompleted), including three-set wins over Michigan and Vanderbilt. The freshman was a phenomenal presence for the Cardinal at the bottom of the lineup all season, amassing a 30-5 record, 10 three-set wins and seven match-clinching wins, all team-bests.
With just two matches left, Stanford seemed to be in a promising position, as both Lord and Davidson took the court to serve for their respective matches.
After losing a tight first-set tiebreaker, Lord subsequently dominated the Cowgirls’ Carla Tur Mari to take a 6-2, 5-2 advantage in the second and third sets on Court 6.
Lord pieced together a brilliant final service game for the Cardinal, hitting two cross-court forehand winners to go up 40-15 and seal the match with an unreturnable first serve up the tee that evened the dual match score at 3-3.
The ever-calm freshman was clinically efficient throughout the postseason, going 6-0 and dropping just two sets en route to the final.
A mass of fans shifted to Court 2, where Davidson and Babic were locked in a third-set battle that would decide the national champion. Having already squandered a break, Davidson found herself up 5-4 with a second chance to serve for the match.
Unforced errors coupled with patient play from Babic quickly put Davidson in a 0-40 hole, as she dropped the game on a netted backhand to hand Babic her third straight game.
Having to regroup quickly under immense pressure wasn’t a foreign situation for Davidson, however. The junior had battled through four consecutive three-set matches in the tournament to help her team reach the final. Against Florida in the quarterfinals, Davidson had thrown away match points on consecutive double faults at 5-2 before coming right back to break at 5-3 and send Stanford through to the semis.
“It’s happened plenty of times now this tournament,” said Davidson of being the last out on court. “I kind of had a feeling that it was down to me.”
Physical exhaustion was also a factor, given the grueling postseason schedule that had the team play six matches in the span of 11 days, including the semifinal against Vanderbilt less than 24 hours before.
“I started cramping a little bit [at 5-2], and things didn’t feel as good,” she said after the match. “I knew if I could just stay in the match and make [Babic] hit a lot of balls, I was tougher than her.”
That was exactly the strategy Davidson adopted in the final games, playing superb defense at 5-5 to earn the break of serve and a third opportunity to serve out the match.
The final game was not lacking in drama, as Babic got ahead early and threatened to step in on Davidson’s second serve at 15-30. However, a perfectly placed Davidson kick-serve up the tee that clipped the inside of the line and could not be returned into play by Babic evened the score at 30-30. It was one of the most pivotal points of the match: Had Davidson — who had seen ups and downs on her serve all day — lost the point, her opponent would have had three chances at sending the match to a tiebreaker.
Instead, after a backhand that sailed long from Babic, Davidson found herself up 40-30 with two championship points on her racquet. A forced error evened the score at 40-40, making the most pressure-filled moment of the match (which switched to no-ad scoring for the first time this year).
After a sharp return from Babic, the players exchanged a back-and-forth rally during which Davidson found herself on the defensive for nearly the entirety of the point, hitting a number of slow slices and daring her opponent to miss. The tactic finally paid off when Babic sent a short, low Davidson slice wide on the 26th shot of the point, as Davidson collapsed and was mobbed by the entire Stanford team.
Davidson’s win was all the more remarkable considering her comeback in the second set: Had she not battled back from down 1-4, and saved a match point at 4-5, the Cardinal would have very likely been the ones clapping politely as Oklahoma State hoisted its first title.
— NCAA (@NCAA) May 24, 2016
“Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking, ‘OK, I need to come back and try to win this match,’” said Davidson.
“I was thinking, ‘Stay on the court and maybe [Zhao] can split sets…Maybe it will help someone else relax a little bit and play better.”
It was a fitting end to the season for Davidson, who unexpectedly anchored the team at the No. 1 spot early in the year while Zhao competed on the professional circuit. In the NCAA Tournament, she stepped up yet again as Stanford battled its way to victory.
Stanford’s 18th title — more than all other programs combined since the tournament was introduced in 1982 — further cements the program as the winningest team in the sport.
Contact Alexa Corse at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu.