But how would they perform come NCAA Tournament time, when the stakes are high and pressure intensifies?
On Thursday, that question was answered.
Doyle’s thrilling 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (0) victory propelled Stanford to an edge-of-your-seat 4-3 decision over No. 6 California, representing the latest chapter in a recent series of memorable postseason comebacks for the NCAA defending champions.
Couldn't have asked for a better way to start off NCAAs in Athens - THIS team and THESE girls are worth fighting through any amount of pain— Taylor Davidson (@taylor_lee44) May 15, 2014
Doyle, who entered the match as the Cardinal’s team leader with 30 wins, was in position to clinch the match only thanks to victories by fellow rookies Davidson, who shook off cramps and fatigue to grind out a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 triumph at the No. 4 spot, and Zhao, who required less theatrics in a dominating 6-2, 6-3 rout at the No. 3 position.
In a match that felt more like the national title was on the line instead of a quarterfinal berth, Stanford (19-2, 8-2 Pac-12) stormed back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2. California (20-5, 10-0 Pac-12) seized early control by capturing the doubles point and grabbing another quick result when Zsofi Susanyi beat Krista Hardebeck.
Conference matchups often become unavoidable in the postseason, and most national tennis pundits were hyping Thursday’s tilt as the best round of 16 match. Stanford and California split their regular-season meetings, but the Golden Bears felt like they had all the momentum after easily snatching a 6-1 victory at Taube Family Tennis Stadium last month.
The unknown was how California, a first-time Pac-12 champion riding a 14-match winning streak into the postseason, would handle the rare role of a favorite.
Stanford, on the other hand, showed everyone last season it could win as the underdog, as evidenced by becoming the lowest-seeded team at No. 12 to win an NCAA title.
However, the Pac-12 rivals faced an obstacle even before the match began, with overnight rain shifting the contest to Georgia Tech’s indoor courts in Atlanta, approximately 1.5 hours away from Athens. Stanford had played only one of its matches indoors this year (Colorado) while California had experience competing at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships.
California grabbed an early 1-0 lead, becoming only the third team to win the doubles point against Stanford this year.
But losing the doubles point isn’t a deal-breaker for the Cardinal, which was in the same situation against Georgia in the quarterfinals of last year’s NCAA title run. In fact, over the last five years of NCAA Tournament play, Stanford is now 5-2 overall in matches when it loses the doubles point.
After Susanyi’s victory gave the Golden Bears a 2-1 edge, Zhao responded with a 6-2, 6-3 rout of Schutting at the No. 3 spot. It was a nice bounce-back for Zhao, whose 17-match winning streak was ended by Schutting in a rare loss last month in Cal’s 6-1 win on The Farm.
Kristie Ahn knotted the match at 2-2 following a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Denise Starr at the No. 1 spot. Stanford’s vocal leader and anchor at the top of the lineup, Ahn improved to 13-2 in her career against Cal opponents and 6-0 this season, with five of those victories coming against different Golden Bear players.
California moved in front 3-2 after Klara Fabikova defeated Ellen Tsay 6-4, 6-3 at the No. 5 spot.
That’s when Davidson and Doyle started their comebacks. Davidson figured to be in a better spot after taking the first set while Doyle had dropped a first-set tiebreaker.
But momentum shifted once again, with Doyle evening her match with a 6-3 victory in the second set. Meanwhile, Davidson had just lost her second set 6-4, and was forced to take an injury timeout after battling cramps and fatigue.
Tied 2-2 in the third set, Davidson somehow appeared to be getting stronger despite her limited mobility. Pounding groundstrokes left and right, Davidson ran away from Chi, ripping off three straight games to break a 3-3 tie.
Over on court six, Doyle was locked in a battle with Megan Manasse. Entering Thursday’s match, Doyle had played in only two three-setters all season, both coming against Manasse with each player winning on the other’s home court.
Doyle trailed 5-3 and managed to shake off match point, knotting her match at 5-5 and then again at 6-6 after Manasse had briefly regained the lead.
The third-set tiebreaker was all Doyle, who proceeded to rattle off seven consecutive points before getting mobbed by her teammates.
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NOTES: Stanford and California were meeting in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since a 4-1 Cardinal victory in the 2003 semifinals in Gainesville, Fla. … Stanford’s victory was eerily reminiscent of last year’s 4-3 upset of No. 5-seeded USC in the round of 16, a five-hour marathon that saw Ellen Tsay provide the clincher against the Pac-12 champion Women of Troy … Kristie Ahn notched her 95th career victory … Carol Zhao improved to 3-0 in three-set matches … Of Taylor Davidson’s seven losses on the year, two had come against Lynn Chi … Stanford improved to 132-16 all-time in NCAA Tournament matches … Stanford won a match by a score of 4-3 for the first time this year.
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Head Coach Lele Forood
“There were a lot of moments it didn’t look very good at the end there, but it was one of those see-saw matches. We were down 1-0 from the doubles, they totally outplayed us, but we had good starts in the singles. We came out pretty well. We won a lot of first sets and even the six was a competitive first set, so then I started to feel pretty good about where we were sitting in the match.”
“I hit every single point (serving at 15-40 while down 4-5 in second set). We came all the way out here to go far in the tournament and I was just trying to leave it all on the court. Even if I ended up losing I just wanted to know that I gave it 100 percent. I ended up getting those points and securing the game.”
“I saw Taylor fall on the court and I saw her on the ground and it wasn’t looking too good. But I knew she was going to give it her all and wasn’t going to default. It’s awesome. I’m so proud of her that she came back and even ended up winning that third set while cramping. That just gave me a lot of confidence and I had to pull through for the team.”
California Head Coach Amanda Augustus
“Obviously that was heartbreaking for Maegan (Manasse). We knew that this match was going to come down to the wire, as it does every time we play our rival. It was just great tennis on every court. Unfortunately, we had a couple of match points that we didn’t convert, but that’s what can happen when you have two freshmen out there at the end. You don’t really know what you’re going to get. I think Stanford will go really far now in the tournament. I think we’re two of the better teams this year, so I wish them luck. If it can’t be us, I want it to be someone from our conference. My team fought really hard today and left it all out on the court. You can’t ask for anythng else.”
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No. 11 Stanford 4, No. 6 California 3
1) No. 10 Ahn/Zhao (STAN) vs. No. 41 Chi/Schutting (CAL) abandoned
2) No. 47 Manasse/Starr (CAL) d. No. 50 Davidson/Tsay (STAN) 8-3
3) No. 83 Fabikova/Susanyi (CAL) d. Doyle/Amelia Herring (STAN) 8-4
Order of Finish: 3, 2
1) No. 3 Kristie Ahn (STAN) d. No. 30 Denise Starr (CAL) 6-4, 6-2
2) No. 23 Zsofi Susanyi (CAL) d. No. 51 Krista Hardebeck (STAN) 6-2, 6-1
3) No. 21 Carol Zhao (STAN) d. No. 18 Annett Schutting (CAL) 6-2, 6-3
4) No. 50 Taylor Davidson (STAN) d. No. 24 Lynn Chi (CAL) 6-2, 4-6, 6-3
5) No. 87 Klara Fabikova (CAL) d. No. 54 Ellen Tsay (STAN) 6-4, 6-3
6) No. 57 Caroline Doyle (STAN) d. No. 62 Maegan Manasse (CAL) 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (0)
Order of Finish: 2, 3, 1, 5, 4, 6