Once again it’s time for the final regular season women’s tennis match between Stanford and the Bears from Cal. Once again it’s the nation’s #1 ranked team, undefeated and trying to stay that way, and their cross-bay rival. The difference is this year it’s Cal who is undefeated, ranked #1 nationally and attempting to complete an undefeated season. Cal’s next NCAA women’s tennis championship will be their first so the pressure is mounting to take advantage of this opportunity.
Coach Lele Forood’s Cardinal women have had an up and down season losing to Mississippi and Vanderbilt back to back in January in Nashville. They rallied to four straight wins in February including one over arch rival Florida. Usually any year you beat Florida is a great one and is capped off with a shiny NCAA ring in May. However, the women had a disastrous March losing to Arizona State in conference play and Pepperdine for the first time in history. April included wins over the three Northwest schools (Oregon State doesn’t field a women’s tennis team) sandwiched around a tough loss at Cal 4-3.
The Cardinal played the first 2/3 of the season with one arm tied behind their back because Carol Zhao, arguably the best player in the country, was on loan to the Canadian National team and did not re-enroll in school until Spring quarter. Losing your top player in tennis is different and more devastating than in other sports because it effects more than merely one position as every player must move up one notch. Add to that the havoc it plays out with doubles pairings. Well, Carol is back and trying to integrate herself fully with the team but as we saw in the first Cal match the chemistry isn’t quite there yet.
Saturday’s match should be a “thriller” not only because of the Bears attempt to finish the regular season undefeated but also the match outcome has serious consequences for Stanford . Currently Stanford in ranked # 19 in the country. Only the top 16 teams get to host a regional which would mean Stanford would have to travel for the first time ever for the first two rounds of NCAA tournament play. As you can imagine, this only makes the road to the National title that much tougher. (More on the NCAA’s in a future article next month.)
The lineups will be similar to the April 3rd match; this may not bode well for the Cardinal since they lost 4 of the 6 singles matches in straight sets (after winning the doubles point). For the record Cal’s starting lineup consists of two seniors, two juniors, one sophomore and one freshman. Stanford’s lineup is a little less experienced, featuring one senior, three juniors, and two freshmen. However, Zhao will be putting on her “college hat” in looking to avenge her April 3rd loss to Meagan Manasse. Everyone at Stanford is healthy with the possible exception of Caroline Doyle who has been fighting the flu but hopefully will return to her usual stellar form just in time. The April 3rd match at Cal was a microcosm of the season with a tremendous doubles performance to start off 1-0, then after a five minute break, a very flat start to the singles. Cal’s big hitters seized the moment and raced off the quick leads in the first three singles matches. To their credit Stanford hung in and won at #4 and #5, so if we can win the doubles point again and eke out one more singles (Zhao would be the favorite at #1) that could do the trick!
Coaches are usually leery of undefeated seasons because it magnifies the pressure on your important end-of-season matches. Better to take a loss in the regular season and be looser in the NCAA’s (although maybe not in your last match…anybody heard of momentum?). The notable exception, of course, is that special team that actually knows how strong it is, enjoys the pressure and can back it up. The Stanford women have been undefeated several times while winning the whole enchilada. Cal did win the National Indoor Title in February and returned outdoors to be beat USC, UCLA, and Florida so who knows how they rank with the great teams. On the other hand knocking Cal from the undefeated ranks (and probable #1 seed at the NCAA’s) and securing a regional host site certainly puts some spring beck into the Cardinal’s step in this quest for an unprecedented 19th national crown.
Let’s beat the Bears!
(I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate Cal’s head coach Amanda Augustus on being named the Pac 12 All-Century Doubles Team with partner Amy Jensen!)
In 21 seasons coaching the Stanford women’s tennis team, Frank Brennan compiled an eye-popping 510-50 overall record (.911) - most wins of any coach in program history. He is a four-time ITA/Wilson Intercollegiate Coach of the Year and led the Cardinal to 10 NCAA championships, including six in a row from 1986-91 and four perfect seasons (1982, 1984, 1989 and 1990). He was also twice named the NCAA and ITA Coach of the Decade (for the 1980’s and 1990's) and and just this week was named the Pac-12 Women's Tennis Coach of the Century. Frank is a member of both the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame and the USTA/International Tennis Hall of Fame. His son, Frankie is currently the Associate Head Coach of the Stanford women’s team.