Before cheering fans under Friday’s blue skies, No. 7 Stanford women’s tennis (24-2, 10-0 PAC 12) put on a masterful performance, soundly defeating No. 10 Ohio State (22-8, 10-1 Big 10) 4-1 in the NCAA Tournament’s Round-of-16. The Cardinal’s winning streak has reached 21 in a row.
The match was never close. Beginning with the doubles, the Cardinal made an authoritative statement that they were the better team. In fact, it took nearly 20 minutes for the Buckeyes to earn their first game, and Stanford never trailed in any set. On court two, graduate student Sara Choy and freshman Alexandra Yepifanova finished first, rolling to a 6-2 victory. A highlight of the match was Yepifanova’s powerful and well-placed serves, which opened up the court for Choy’s crisp net volleys.
Next, on court three, the formidable team of sophomores Connie Ma and Valencia Xu won its set 6-2 with Ma hitting several nice up-the-alley passing shots and Xu steady from the baseline. The win was their 11th straight. At nearly the same time, the No. 16-ranked team of senior Angelica Blake and freshman Alexis Blokhina triumphed 6-1 on court one, out-playing their Buckeye opponents, No. 37 Irina Cantos Siemers and Sydni Ratliff, in every phase. The Cardinal secured the doubles point in only half an hour.
In the ensuing singles matches, the Cardinal charged to an early win. No. 44 Blake, who lost only one game the entire afternoon across both singles and doubles, blanked her Buckeye opponent, 6-0, 6-0. Blake’s sharply angled shots and her uncanny ability to shift back and forth from offense to defense were on full display.
No. 29 Yepifanova followed with a dominant win over No. 30 Ratliff on court one. Yepifanova broke Ratliff’s serve early and then cruised to a 6-2 first-set victory. At 2-0 in the second, Ratliff appeared to twist an ankle. After a lengthy treatment time-out, play resumed and Yepifanova picked up where she left off, winning the second set 6-1. Throughout the match, Yepifanova answered Ratliff’s powerful groundstrokes with equal — if not greater — power and with superior consistency and shot placement, putting her opponent on the defensive. Also, Yepifanova’s serve was a potent weapon, producing several aces and service winners.
Xu, on court five, won the clinching point. Her opponent, No. 89 Shelly Bereznyak, had not lost a singles match since February, but Xu jumped to a 4-0 lead and battled to win the first set, 7-5. Xu quickly squelched any Buckeye hopes for a close second set. Standing near the baseline, she took the ball early, dictating the point and keeping Bereznyak off-balance. In the final game, Xu was down 0-40 before reeling off the final four points, punctuating a 6-0 second-set and match win.
At the time Xu secured the clincher, Choy was up a set at 6-4, 4-5 on court six. On court three, No. 84 Blokhina, who had lost her first set 6-0, showed her fortitude by coming back from 1-4 in the second and winning it in a tiebreaker, just as the match concluded. The Buckeyes gained their only point when, on court two, No. 20 Siemers bested No. 18 Ma, 6-1, 6-4.
Afterwards, Yepifanova commented on her singles match: “I have seen Sydni play since the juniors. I know her game. She’s been in the Fall Nationals too. I saw her play there, she had a great win, but I knew that if I could focus on what I have to do — first serve percentage, getting returns in deep and just taking all the opportunities I have — I knew that the score would go my way.”
She also described what makes her and Choy such an effective doubles team, particularly on her service games: “When I am at the baseline and Sara is at the net, both of us are really confident. Sara has great hands. She loves being up there and I have a lot of trust in her as well, and also I have trust in my baseline skills to set her up. Overall, consistently hitting and not giving any loose points, that’s what Sara and I do best.”
When asked how she was able to rebound so quickly from last week’s singles loss to Oklahoma State, her first since February, Yepifanova talked about her mental preparation and the challenges presented by managing academics and athletics simultaneously.
“Against Oklahoma State I was in a different mental state. The day prior to Oklahoma State I had two midterms and the day before I had another one, so it was a hectic week coming up to Oklahoma State,” said Yepifanova. “But I really took my time before this one. I rested more. I felt more prepared mentally and it really showed in many aspects of my game, not only my serve.”
The Cardinal now advance to Wednesday’s NCAA Quarterfinals in Orlando, Fla., where they will meet No. 2 Texas A&M (30-2, 13-0 SEC).
“They’re obviously a really good team,” Yepifanova said of the Aggies. “They’ve been playing great, [but] we’re playing out of this world. I think everyone is so confident and everyone has each other’s back, so I think it’s going to be a great match.”