As soon as the final ball bounced Monday in the Women's NCAA Champions team final for Stanford's third straight title, we had to ask the question about next year. Amber Liu and Alice Barnes have been the rocks of the Cardinal juggernaut, but those seniors are graduating. How strong are the rest of the pieces in place to continue Stanford's stranglehold on women's collegiate tennis? That question is being answered on the courts this week at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium. Friday in particular spoke loudly to the Cardinal's continuing strength into the 2006-07 season with junior Theresa Logar and sophomore Celia Durkin both advancing to the quarterfinals of the singles championship.
Logar, ranked #10 in the nation, is a not a huge surprise to be playing among the final eight women in this singles tournament. She did however score an upset in her Round of 16 match when she defeated #6 seed Amanda Fink of USC. Fink was not only the higher seed, but the Trojan had already taken both matches against Logar previously this year. Moreover, Logar looked like a mess in her narrow three-set victory in the Round of 32 on Thursday.
All of that added up to an advantage for Fink in this quarterfinal clash, so it was somewhat stunning to see Logar lay the wood to her Pac-10 rival in a 6-0, 6-2 win. The Stanford junior jumped all over the USC frosh sensation by taking the first 10 games of the match. What a difference a day makes.
"I wanted to win that one," she says of the Fink rematch.
"I think I was a little bit more psyched up for it, just because I knew who I was playing and yesterday I had no idea who I was playing," Logar comments her Thursday and Friday matches. "[TCU's Helena] Besovic played a style I wasn't accustomed to. It was a tough match when you don't get to play those kinds of players all the time. And it was hard to get moving in the morning - that was the earliest I had played yet. It took a while to get going. A long time, actually."
Once again, the windy conditions figured significantly in how this NCAA match played out. While other Stanford players have bemoaned the unusual gusts on their home court, Logar felt comfortable and played her strategy accordingly.
"We have had to play in this wind before, and we're used to it from the court," the Stanford junior explains. "I was able to better understand how to play the ball, how to mix up the speeds on it a little bit. I tried to keep it out of the strike zone. Basically I played tennis like when I was 12. I kind of just pushed it. I wasn't really hitting it. I was just trying to keep the ball in, and force the error by just staying consistent."
"This wind can make the best of us look like a hack. You had to just deal with the fact that you are going to shank every other ball," Logar adds. "It's not a straight wind; it's a swirly wind. Usually you can decide: this side you're with the wind, this side you're against the wind. It was a swirly wind, so you had to fight it on both sides, which was tough."
The talk of the tournament though is Stanford's #6 singles player, Celia Durkin, who has moved into the final eight of this NCAA Tournament. That is a simply astounding feat, speaking both to Stanford's unparalleled strength as well as Durkin's talent and play.
"That shows the depth of our team," comments her senior teammate, Liu. "Celia is an amazing player, so we wish her the best of luck. Hopefully she does really well and takes it. And she's kind of an a war path right now. I kind of feel sorry for anybody who is going to play her."
"At any other school, the number one player doesn't make it past the first round sometimes," Liu adds "But at Stanford, we had four girls in the Round of 16."
Durkin has been a quietly intriguing player for the Cardinal this year. After playing her freshman season in 2004-05 at Harvard, the Los Angeles (Calif.) transferred back to the West Coast and took an undercard roll behind Stanford's four heavy hitters ranked in the top 12 in the senior and junior classes. It is unconscionable for a team to be able to play the #34 player in the nation as their sixth singles, but that has been an important component to the Cardinal's undefeated record this year. Durkin delivered a perfect 23-0 record in dual matches this year, mostly on the #6 court but occasionally at #5. Through Friday's action, the sophomore transfer is 36-4 on the season, with her only losses coming in individual tournaments.
But Durkin had rarely faced a player ranked as high as her Round of 16 opponent. Baylor's Zuzana Cerna was a seeded player at these NCAAs and ranked #16 in the country. That is a class of player Durkin simply cannot see out on the #6 court in a dual match. You have to trace back to January at the Freeman Memorial Tennis Championships, to find Durkin's wins against current #12 Elena Gantcheva of UNLV and #21 Laura Gordon of UCLA. Nevertheless, the unsung Stanford sophomore handled Cerna remarkably Friday in a fast-paced 6-3, 6-1 victory.
The final celebration for Stanford partisans on Friday came in doubles action, though not without a scare. #1-ranked and top-seeded Alice Barnes and Anne Yelsey dropped the first set in their Round of 16 affair against TCU's Helena Besovic and Ana Cetnik, 3-6. It was their second straight match where they lost their opening set. Though they are the favorites on paper, Stanford's duo is not at 100% this week with Yelsey fighting a strained quadricep muscle that kept her out of singles action in the team final and out of the singles bracket altogether. TCU had no compunctions about running Yelsey around the court Friday, making her chase balls.
"I think they're trying to," the Stanford junior admits. "I think they know about it, and I think they are trying to use that to their advantage. I'm feeling better every day. Hopefully with each match, I can cover more of the court and help Alice with the overheads and lobs."
The good news, says Yelsey, is that the strategy being applied against her can become predictable.
"I think we know it's coming," she explains. "It's like when somebody breaks a string. You know that they are going to chip short and do all these dinky things. We're just prepared for it, and we know that it's coming. Alice and I have made those adjustments to get ready for it."
Barnes declared on Friday after her singles loss that the top-ranked tandem would not make any changes in their style or strategy of play, regardless of Yelsey's condition. So far, so good. The Cardinal won this one to reach the quarterfinals, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
"We have decided not to adjust anything," Barnes shared. "We have decided to just go for it. Go out there and play just as we would regularly because the teams are so good right now that if we try to go out there and protect her leg, we're not going to win anyways. So we have decided that we are not going to adjust anything whatsoever. She is just going to play flat-out, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work."
It did take an in-match adjustment, however, for the Cardinal to come back against TCU. And it was a move the top-ranked tandem do not often make.
"Normally when we go down, we try to be more aggressive. This time actually, it wasn't that we tried to be less aggressive; we just tried to make a few more balls and played back," Barnes says. "We tried to make the make them miss a little bit - see if they were going to miss, rather than forcing stuff off the groundstrokes and giving them easy volleys or giving them errors. We just tried to give them more balls and see if they would miss."
The quarterfinals doubles match on Saturday you don't want to miss pits Stanford against a UCLA team that includes Riza Zalameda, the singles player who ousted Liu on Friday. They will not say it, but Barnes and Yelsey would greatly relish the chance to exact some small measure of revenge on behalf of their teammate.
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