From a national perspective, Friday was a bloody mess at the Women's NCAA Tennis Championships singles. With the Round of 16 now in the books, only one of the top eight seeds has survived: #2 Kristi Miller. The other seven have been knocked off the court - six of them falling today.
From the more local Stanford perspective, it was a tearful farewell to two seniors who hoped and expected to make more noise than an exit halfway through the singles tournament. Alice Barnes, 24 hours after looking impeccable in a 6-2, 6-2 victory was a mere shadow of herself in a stunning 3-6, 3-6 loss to tiny Megan Moulton-Levy of William & Mary. Barnes started in an 0-3 whole from which she never recovered. Her second set started worse still, losing the first four games and trailing by two breaks. The British-born Cardinal rallied momentarily with a break of Moulton-Levy and a run of three straight games to close within 3-4, but Barnes dropped the final two games.
"I would have had to have played my best to beat her, and I don't particularly think I did," Barnes offers. "That's more credit to her making me make mistakes than anything else. I thought she did very well."
After playing through an entire team championship tournament of both singles and doubles, plus now playing twice daily in the individuals portion of these NCAA Championships in best-of-three-sets matches, Barnes may have run out of gas in her tank. She did not control the court in her usual manner, which keeps groundstrokes low over the net and prolongs points with her reach and tenacity.
"I didn't really feel the rhythm today at all. Maybe that's a credit to her; maybe she put me off my rhythm," Barnes opines. "People forget that a big part of my game is running balls down and putting pressure on people by getting so much back. I think I was just a step slow today, which obviously puts me at a disadvantage. Perhaps I lose a little bit of confidence because of that because I know I don't quite have it in my legs. I missed more volleys today than I normal would. It's just a shame."
Barnes had the bonus of not walking off the court in her absolutely last match as a collegian. She is still alive with junior Anne Yelsey in the doubles tournament, where the duo is ranked #1 in the nation and is the top seed at these championships. Nevertheless, the disappointment of being the #7 seed in singles and dropping to an unseeded player before reaching the quarterfinals is not at all what Barnes had envisioned for her final NCAA tournament. She should have been moping after the upset loss but instead put a happy face on the past week of tennis, given her team's success in winning a third straight NCAA Championship.
"It's somewhat disappointing, but I try not to let it take away from the team event," she smiles. "That is obviously the most important thing. It's certainly not going to put a damper on my season at all. These things happen. There is only one person who is going to come away from this whole week having not lost. But there were 11 of us who came away from the team event having not lost, so I would much rather be in that group (laughs)."
Less cheery was Amber Liu, seeded #8 in this tournament but in everybody's crosshairs as the two-time NCAA singles champion. She lost to an unseeded but certainly not unheralded Riza Zalameda from UCLA. The sophomore baseliner endured a horrendously disappointing season of bad play plus an ankle injury after a freshman campaign that saw her reach the semifinals of the 2005 NCAA singles tournament. Zalameda dropped out of the ITA computer rankings altogether this year, which cover the top 125 players. Only when she defeated USC's #7-ranked Amanda Fink in the Bruins' final dual match of the regular season did Zalameda enter the rankings and leap high enough to slip into this week's singles field of 64.
"Just play loose," the UCLA sophomore says is her motto. "I had a rough season, and I was working really hard just getting back my confidence level. This whole tournament, I am just thankful to be here."
Zalameda was celebrating much more than 'being here' after she upset Liu today in three sets. Unlike Barnes' match, this was a lengthy and grueling affair. The two played mostly on serve through the first set, excepting a pair of breaks in the third and fourth games. At 6-5, the Bruin was serving to put the set into a tiebreaker, but she double-faulted on break point to give Liu the set at 7-5. The Stanford senior did not ride that momentum, however, in the second set. Liu was broken right out of the game, trailed 0-2, and then was broken again to drop to a 1-4 hole. She went out with a whimper, 2-6, to even the match.
It all came down the third set, where neither played could manage a break through the first 10 games. Liu was serving her games much more efficiently, but she could not cash in the break opportunities against her Pac-10 opponent. A wealth of chances came in the sixth game, when Liu led 3-2 and Zalameda was serving. At 30-40, the UCLA player tossed up a second serve, but Liu did not attack and could not close the point. Two points later in the deuce, Liu again had a break point and again had a second serve coming to her. Nothing. Two points later - another break point. Nothing.
All told, Liu had five break points in that sixth game, including three of which Zalameda went to second serves. At the end of the 16-point game, she held serve to tie the final set at 3-3. Liu came right back with a six-point game, finishing with a splendid serve-and-volley that started with a strike right down the "T". The tide was shifting toward the Stanford senior, and soon she had another golden opportunity. Liu led 5-4 and had Zalameda down 0-30. But two errors later, Liu found herself tied back up in the game, which Zalameda held. The very next game, Liu made more errors and had her serve broken in the 11th game - the first break of the set. Zalameda served out the game, set and match.
"She played really well. I have to give her all the credit. She didn't let up the entire match," Liu says. "It's obviously tough. I didn't feel like I was playing the best tennis I've ever played. This entire tournament, for whatever reason, I struggled a little bit. It happens."
"I've known her for a while. She is obviously a good player," the #8-ranked Cardinal said of the #54-ranked Bruin. "That ranking doesn't do her justice."
There was much to examine after the loss for Liu. Foremost on her mind was not the second set, through which she was sleepwalking. Instead if was the missed opportunities to break in the sixth and 10th games of the final and deciding set which haunted the Stanford woman.
"If I were to play back the match, I wish I would have played a few break points differently - not the second set. She played better than me, and I was kind of out of that second set anyway. I would just run it back to the third set," Liu comments.
On the 10th game, where 0-30 melted away: "I feel like she forced a few errors there. I don't remember if I had unforced errors or not. It's tough. Maybe I got a little bit tight. It would have been nice if I had played a little more aggressive on those, or if I had unforced errors that I had gone for them. It's brutal. It sucks when you are two points away from the match, and you don't close it."
On the sixth game, where five break points went unconverted: "I wish I had been more aggressive on a few certain shots. On those opportunities I had, maybe if I had run into the net or done something else. But that's all in hindsight. It's all easier said than done."
Injuries additionally made this match tough sledding for the Stanford senior. She did not comment on her condition prior to today's loss, but afterward explained the problem with her post tibia.
"It's basically a precursor to bad shin splints, so that affects your movement. Maybe that had an effect," Liu offers. "Also my hip flexors were tight today, for whatever reason."
An unusually windy day was the final straw for the laboring home crowd favorite.
"The wind doesn't really play to my game," Liu explains. "When it was swirling today, that's not necessarily in my favor. I don't hit a real high, spinning ball. I don't have a lot of margin for error. I play my best tennis in conditions that are pretty settled."
"She likes hitting flat, low balls. She likes power," Zalameda adds. "I don't think she can handle being off-balance."
Liu was also stewing in much greater despair than her Stanford teammate after the singles loss. While Barnes still smiled and cited the team championship as the greater importance, Liu says that success is unable to stave off the grave disappointment of a Round of 16 exit from her final NCAA singles tournament.
"It's mixed," says Liu of the team title coupled with today's singles loss. "I think as much as we have had pressure on us to win the team event every year, I have had pressure to win the individual event just because of success my first couple of years. That pressure hasn't really been let off. Now it is, obviously (laughs). It is a comfort that, hey, we did still win the team championship. But I feel like it is two whole separate events."
"It was my last chance to make a dent in this tournament," she adds. "It would have been nice to at least get to the quarters or semis. I think it is also more emotional because it is the last college match I will ever play. I think that was even more emotional."
Amber Liu entered this week with the chance and hope of becoming the first ever three-time NCAA singles champion. She took the college tennis world by storm when she took those titles her freshman and sophomore years in 2003 and 2004. As wonderful as that was at the time, the immense pressure she has felt since has weighed her down tremendously. Losing prior to the quarterfinals in her senior year is all the more painful in that context.
"It's been pressure from all sides just because I chose to go to college and not turn pro," Liu explains. "The people who said 'you better turn pro' were telling me 'you better win this championship.' Or: 'You better win again, otherwise you're stupid. Why would you go back to college?'"
"There has been pressure from the media in general. I don't know how many times I was asked, 'Are you going to win three in a row?' or win three championships in singles. It's inevitable. You are going to face these questions no matter who you are. But it puts the thought into your head," she details. "And I apply pressure for myself, to hopefully keep on that winning tradition."
Liu might be able to better digest and enjoy her incredible four-year success that ranks her as one of the most successful college players in the sport's history. For now, the disappointment is just too great. Those pangs could become regret. Would the Stanford senior trade her last two years of singles championship "failure" for an earlier start in the pro tour?
"No, I would not," Liu answers without hesitation. "It has been a little bit disappointing that I haven't been able to win another singles championship. On the other hand, I would not trade my college experiences these last two years for the pro tour. Not in a second."
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