When Stanford entered today's finals of the Women's NCAA Tennis Championships, they were on a serious roll. Not only were the Cardinal undefeated... they had not lost since 2003. Not only did Stanford advance impressively to the championship match of this field-of-64 NCAA Tournament... they did so with a perfect 20-0 record.
By the numbers, Stanford should not have had too much trouble with Miami today. The Cardinal were #1-ranked and #1-seeded. 29-0 coming into the NCAA finals, Stanford sported the #1 and #22 doubles teams in the nation. In singles, Stanford Women's Tennis laid claim to four of the top 11 players in the computer rankings, plus #34, #52 and #73. That's seven ranked players - one more than can compete in a dual match in singles. The Cardinal were better than undefeated. They were untouchable.
Miami did not quite cause fright. The ACC, you see, is a distant also-ran in the landscape of women's tennis. In NCAA history, Miami had just one experience playing in the women's finals - a 1985 loss to USC (6-3). In searching for other ACC representation in the women's championships final day, only Duke appeared and only once - a 1998 loss to Florida (5-1).
Instead, the highest level of women's tennis has been dominated by the Pac-10 and the SEC. In the 25 years of history for the women's tennis NCAA Tournament, there have been 50 finalists. 42 of them, including today's match, have come from the Pac-10 and the SEC. So you can excuse those fans of the game who looked at the probable final matchup between #1 Stanford and #3 USC as a worthy championship bout. Or perhaps the fans who eagerly took in Monday's semifinal between #1 Stanford and #4 Florida as the effect finale. #7 Miami, an unlikely final opponent from a second-tier tennis conference, simply did not offer the cachet that Stanford/Florida, Stanford/Georgia or Stanford/UCLA matches have provided through the years.
The Hurricanes had just two ranked singles players on their roster, and no team could conceive of taking a doubles point away from the Cardinal. The three pairs currently working for Stanford were 23-1, 20-1 and 17-1 in dual matches this year. You can figure out the statistical probability of beating two of those duos on the same day.
But... the action at Taube Tennis Stadium today had more drama than we expected. Two factors contributed to the eventful final. The first was a quadricep injury to Stanford junior Anne Yelsey, suffered previously and today at its worst. Yelsey labored in doubles and did not play in singles. That was a big blow, twice over, for the Cardinal. Yelsey teams with senior Alice Barnes as the #1 doubles duo in the nation, and in singles the junior is ranked #11.
The other force in play today was Miami sophomore Audra Cohen. She is a big part of the Hurricanes' top doubles pair that is ranked #2 in the nation, and in singles she might be the best player in the nation. Cohen, who won 51 matches as a freshman at Northwestern last year before transferring in June to Coral Gables, is ranked #2 by the computers but has been seeded #1 in the NCAA singles draw. She is powerfully built, but athletic and agile. She can move around the court like smaller players, yet also blast away like a big baseliner.
Doubles action was up first, and all three courts held serve for the first several games. The first break came at 2-2 on the second court, when sophomore Celia Durkin and senior Amber Liu broke Miami's Audrey Banada and Monika Dancevic to go up 3-2. The Cardinal were then off to the races on court #2, dropping only one game in the next six to win 8-3. That necessitated just one more doubles victor for Stanford to take the doubles point, as expected. But there were see-saw stories unfolding on both the #1 and #3 courts.
On both courts, action was on serve at 4-3. On the #1 court, Miami's #2-ranked duo of Cohen and Melissa Applebaum broke Barnes and Yelsey to go up 5-3. Over on court #3, there was also a break to put somebody ahead 5-3, but Stanford claimed that advantage for sophomore Lejla Hodzic and freshman Jessica Nguyen over Miami's Caren Seenauth and Patricia Starzyk. A loss at #1 doubles would be a little surprising, but only fleeting in impact so long as the #3 team held on to win. That prospect faded quickly as Seenauth and Starzyk broke right back to put that court back on serve at 5-4. Those teams broke each other's serves once more each, leaving no advantage for either side.
The pressure returned to court #1, where Stanford's 3-5 deficit grew to 3-7. With Yelsey laboring and being run around the court by the opportunistic 'Canes, it looked like court #3 would decide the all-important doubles point. With serve being broken left and right on that court, it was anybody's guess who would win.
Instead, the Cardinal veterans on court #1 shocked us with a remarkable turnaround. Miami was serving at 7-3 and had held serve every time so far today. Stanford instead broke the 'Canes. Then the Cardinal held serve for their first time since 3-2. Then they broke Miami yet again. With the crowd roaring and Stanford back on serve, a fired-up Barnes and a fighting Yelsey blistered to a 7-7 tie with service at 15. The tide continued to turn toward the home Cardinal, when they broke Miami's serve at 30. Now up 8-7, Stanford was ready to serve out the doubles point, and they did so emphatically. Barnes/Yelsey went up 40-0 and won the game at 15. Stanford came into the net, and Miami tossed up a desperation lob that soared past the baseline. With fists pumping, the Cardinal marched off the court with a hard-fought doubles point - six straight games to turn a 3-7 deficit into a 9-7 victory.
The #1 court turnaround came just in the nick of time, too. Court #3 was knotted at 6-6, but Hodzic and Nguyen were facing a break point.
"The ones - it was certainly not their finest day, but they were playing a really good team today and they were able to just kind of hang in long enough to be able to turn that match around. I'm still not quite sure how they did it," laughed Cardinal head coach Lele Forood.
"I thought that we had chances early on, and we didn't take them," Barnes laments. "They played well to break us - a couple times, I think. But at 7-3, we just decided that we were going to go for it. If you're going to lose, at least you want to feel like that you attacked and that you went for it. That you did the right things. If it doesn't work out, and they play big points - if you force them to play well, then that's one thing. But if you feel that you sat back, let them dictate and you lose at 8-3, I think our attitude going into the singles would have been so much worse. Our spirit would have been a little bit down had we just sat back. So we decided to go for it. Luckily, it came up for us."
Barnes hits the nail on the head. Had Miami been able to finish on court #1 and then made that break and served out on #3, the doubles point for the underdogs could have turned the entire match. Knocking down the invincible doubles of Stanford would have lifted Miami's spirits sky high. They knew that they could win the #1 singles behind Cohen, and with Yelsey injured, their odds would improve in other singles action as well.
Instead, Miami exited doubles down a point and well aware of the glacial opportunity that slid away from them. Stanford raced out to big leads on three of the singles courts, and that was all that the Cardinal would need mathematically to win this NCAA Championship. The first set to finish was Durkin at 6-0 on court #5, up from her normal spot at #6. Yelsey was a gametime decision to play, and Forood made the call to keep her out after watching her move in doubles action. Yelsey was crushed and in tears. Durkin and sophomore Whitney Deason both had to move up from their normal singles spots. The new kid on the block was the freshman Nguyen, who played singles in just eight dual matches all year. Her only other NCAA Tournament experience was in the first round laugher against Quinnipiac. But the youngster played like a veteran this day, winning her first set at 6-0. Junior Theresa Logar, ranked #10 in the nation, notched a third 6-0 first set victory for the Cardinal.
Durkin and Nguyen cruised in their second sets, as well, grabbing the second and third points for Stanford. Cardinal victory was all close. But there was still the question of who would win the clinching point. More on the minds of many in attendance was the question of whether Stanford could maintain their perfect NCAA Tournament run. The Cardinal had scored 4-0 victories in the five previous rounds, and never before had a team recorded a perfect performance in the NCAAs.
Stanford dropped first sets on courts #1 and #4. Liu had all she could handle against Cohen on the main court, though the two played even through the first seven games. The Stanford senior had trouble with her serve, however, at 3-4 to go down a break at 3-5. Liu double-faulted on the final point of the game. Cohen served out to take the set. Deason had a tougher time on the #4 court, dropping 1-6 just after Durkin closed out her set. Stanford was in real danger of losing a point, which would deny them a first in NCAA history. Liu was broken in the first game of the second set, and soon she was down 1-3. Then it was 2-5.
Barnes on the second court was battling. She broke Applebaum for the first time at 4-3 to go up 5-3, but the Miami foe broke right back. Barnes was determined, however, and she broke for a 6-4 victor with a crosscourt overhead smash. Still, the senior had little chance of closing out her second set before Logar. The junior on court #3 controlled the first set and did not drop a game, but then she lost the first two games of the second set. Stanford's most emotional player roared back and took the next five games. Logar had chances to close out her court and keep the Cardinal's 2006 NCAA total perfect. Logar lost the next game, though, which left Liu on the #1 court facing the guillotine. She would lose 3-6, 3-6. Logar won her next game to give Stanford their fourth point and third straight NCAA Championship. Liu did not look like a recent loser, as she sprinted across the two courts and dove onto the Stanford dog pile.
#1 Barnes/Yelsey def. Applebaum/Cohen 9-7 (Stanford, 1st)
#2 Durkin/Liu def. Banada/Dancevic 8-3 (Stanford, 2nd)
#3 Hodzic/Nguyen vs. Seenauth/Starzk 6-6 (DNF)
#1 Cohen def. Liu 6-3, 6-3 (Miami, 3rd)
#2 Barnes vs. Applebaum 6-4, 5-4 (DNF)
#3 Logar def. Dancevic 6-0, 6-3 (Stanford, 4th)
#4 Deason vs. Banada 1-6, 3-5 (DNF)
#5 Durkin def. Starzyk 6-0, 6-2 (Stanford, 1st)
#6 Nguyen def. Seenauth 6-1, 6-0 (Stanford, 2nd)
Stanford has won their 15th national title in the 25-year history of this NCAA Tournament, a staggering domination. This was also the Cardinal's 100th win in the NCAAs.
2006: 6-0 (National Champions)
2005: 6-0 (National Champions)
2004: 6-0 (National Champions)
2003: 5-1 (runner-up)
2002: 6-0 (National Champions)
2001: 6-0 (National Champions)
2000: 5-1 (runner-up)
1999: 6-0 (National Champions)
1998: 2-1 (3rd place)
1997: 4-0 (National Champions)
1996: 3-1 (runner-up)
1995: 2-1 (3rd place)
1994: 3-1 (runner-up)
1993: 3-1 (runner-up)
1992: 2-1 (3rd place)
1991: 4-0 (National Champions)
1990: 4-0 (National Champions)
1989: 4-0 (National Champions)
1988: 4-0 (National Champions)
1987: 4-0 (National Champions)
1986: 4-0 (National Champions)
1985: 1-1 (5th place)
1984: 4-0 (National Champions)
1983: 2-2 (5th place)
1982: 4-0 (National Champions)
After the championship match, the NCAA All-Tournament Team awards were handed out. Top honors were given for the top performers at each slot of doubles and each slot of singles. As one might imagine, the Cardinal were well represented.
#1 doubles: Alice Barnes and Anne Yelsey (Stanford)
#2 doubles: Feriel Esseghir and Georgia Rose (Northwestern)
#3 doubles: Lejla Hodzic and Jessica Nguyen (Stanford)
#1 singles: Audra Cohen (Miami)
#2 singles: Alice Barnes (Stanford)
#3 singles: Theresa Logar (Stanford)
#4 singles: Boglarka Berecz (Florida)
#5 singles: Patricia Starzyk (Miami)
#6 singles: Celia Durkin (Stanford)
Additionally, Alice Barnes was recognized for the Most Outstanding Performance of the 2006 NCAA Division I Women's Championship.
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