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The Champs Are Back
Courtesy: Brian Risso  
Release: 01/21/2014

STANFORD, Calif.- Ranked No. 1 in the latest edition of the ITA national poll, defending NCAA champion Stanford opens its dual match season on Friday, Jan. 24, hosting UC Davis at 3 p.m. at Taube Family Tennis Stadium.

The most storied program in college tennis with 18 national championships (17 NCAA, 1 AIAW), Stanford defeated No. 3 Texas A&M in a 4-3 thriller to capture the 2013 NCAA crown. No. 12 Stanford (22-4, 8-2 Pac-12) became the lowest-seeded team to win an NCAA title, also knocking off No. 5 USC, No. 4 Georgia and No. 1 Florida along the way. The championship also extended Stanford's record streak of 37 years in a row with at least one NCAA title and paved the way for a 19th consecutive Directors' Cup.

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THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

A Winning Culture Prevails
For the first time in three years, Stanford finds itself in NCAA title defense mode. It’s a familiar spot for a program that has racked up 899 victories and more national championships than anyone else. Stanford may have been seeded No. 12 last year, but that was a bit deceiving in that opponents realize how dangerous the Cardinal can be when its entire lineup starts clicking. Nevertheless, Stanford will have a target on its back once the dual match season gets underway. This year’s Cardinal roster has a different feel, with Nicole Gibbs opting to turn pro following her junior year and seniors Natalie Dillon and Stacey Tan lost to graduation. That being said, head coach Lele Forood always reloads and annually has enough pieces to make a strong push for the national title.

Ahn Gets Her Turn At No. 1
Just how much did Nicole Gibbs mean to the program? The two-time defending NCAA singles champion finished her shortened career at 111-15 overall, 65-6 in duals and 30-1 during the month of May while joining Linda Gates as the only Cardinal players to win an NCAA team, singles and doubles title during her career. Gibbs’ laser-sharp focus and business-like demeanor placed her on a higher level than other college players. Senior Kristie Ahn may not boast those numbers, but she’s an equally fierce competitor who has stepped up her game when it matters most (see last year’s NCAA final against Texas A&M). After injuries slowed her progress as an underclassman, Ahn is healthy and playing at the highest level of her career. The All-American is well-suited for a leadership role while occupying the top spot of the lineup.

Rookies Will Contribute Early
In addition to Ahn, the singles and doubles lineup will be anchored by junior Ellen Tsay and sophomore Krista Hardebeck. Both players displayed their ability to withstand pressure and provide key points during Stanford’s NCAA title run last year. Lindsey Kostas and Amelia Herring contribute with depth and also have been part of the postseason experience. There will also be opportunity for the Cardinal’s highly-touted freshman class consisting of Taylor Davidson, Caroline Doyle and Carol Zhao. All three players are capable of filling immediate roles in both singles and doubles, and if the fall season is any indication, Stanford should not miss a beat. How much respect does this young group command? All three players are ranked among the top-50 in singles and have stepped in with a veteran partner in doubles.

Forood’s Take:
“This is a competitive group. Collectively, they are all gamers who love to compete. That’s really one of the things that make it so exciting for us as coaches. Not only are they really talented and easy to work with during the week, they just can’t wait to get to the next match. I also don’t think they’re afraid of anyone. We’ve got good leadership from our returners who have won an NCAA title and know what it takes, and then you throw in three freshmen who really are going to be the foundation of this program for awhile. With Kristie, it’s finally her time. You could argue that her time really started last year during the NCAA Tournament. Now she’s building on that with a strong fall. Even though Kristie took some time off during the break, she still comes back last week and wins her second tournament of the year.”

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THREE MATCHES THAT WILL MATTER

Jan. 31 at Texas – 12 p.m. PT
Stanford’s only non-conference road swing is a journey to the state of Texas, where the Cardinal will face a pair of top-25 opponents in No. 17 Texas and No. 22 Rice. Both programs are postseason regulars and should provide Stanford with an early barometer heading into conference play. Texas head coach Patty Fendick-McCain, who starred on The Farm as a four-time All-American from 1984-87, has the Longhorns in the Big 12 driver’s seat after returning four singles starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament club. Stanford blanked Texas 7-0 in last year’s meeting at Taube, which was the first contest between the schools since 2010.

Feb. 23 vs. Florida – 12 p.m. PT
When you’re talking about women’s college tennis, the discussion typically begins and ends with these two powerhouses. The programs have recently showed their mutual respect with a home-and-home regular season series. Here’s a quick refresher for those unfamiliar with the rivalry. Four years ago, Stanford edged Florida in Athens, Ga., to claim the national championship. In the 2011 NCAA title match, it was the Gators snapping the Cardinal's NCAA-record 184-match home winning streak. Stanford knocked off Florida 5-2 at Taube in the 2012 regular season but the Gators later won the NCAA title. In 2013, Florida spoiled Stanford’s first visit to Gainesville in 20 years, edging the Cardinal 4-2. Three months later in the NCAA Tournament, Florida became a 4-3 victim during Stanford’s improbable NCAA title run.

April 5 vs. USC – 12 p.m. PT
This isn’t to say that the April 4 match against UCLA will be any easier, as this year’s version of the Pac-12 schedule brings the Southern California schools to The Farm. UCLA and USC enter the spring tied at No. 5 in the national rankings and figure to be right around the same spot three months from now. Recently though, it’s been the Women of Troy who have given the Cardinal headaches. In 2012, USC eliminated Stanford from the postseason in the quarterfinals. Last year, USC defeated Stanford 6-1 at home in the regular season but the Cardinal avenged the loss on a bigger stage, relying on an Ellen Tsay three-set victory to pull a 4-3 upset in the round of 16 during NCAA Tournament play. Following the match, many players felt as if the victory helped get over the USC “hump” and fueled the national championship run.

Forood’s Take:
“Obviously, all the huge matches at the end of the year are going to be on the road, so we have to learn how to handle ourselves on the road. Texas was a tough place to play when we last traveled there four years ago. They had a very boisterous, vocal crowd that gave us a hard time. I almost hope the atmosphere is the same this time around so the freshmen get a chance to experience that. Plus, going on the road brings our team together. Florida is highly-ranked but also a team in transition, losing their leader in Lauren Embree but still an early test for us. The early road match at Cal will be huge. The matches against the LA schools will be titanic. We need to get wins against top-10 teams to hold our ranking this year because of not playing indoors, which we haven’t done largely because of the time missed from school.”

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THREE WHO WILL MAKE AN IMPACT

Senior Kristie Ahn
2013-14: 11-1 record to date, capturing singles titles at the USTA/ITA Northwest Regional Championships and NCTC Classic … has won nine in a row ... 2012-13: All-American in singles and doubles ... NCAA All-Tournament Team selection (No. 2 singles) ... All-Pac-12 Second Team selection ... earned final No. 19 national ranking ... 30-7 overall and 22-3 in duals, playing the majority of her matches at the No. 2 spot (17-3) ... 13-6 against nationally-ranked opponents ... provided the clinching point in three matches, most notably Stanford's 4-3 victory over Texas A&M (May 21) in the national championship ... successful return to the court after missing all but three matches last season due to injury and having her freshman year cut short in the postseason ... in doubles, paired with Nicole Gibbs as Stanford's No. 1 team to compile an 18-6 record (18-5 in duals).

Junior Ellen Tsay
2013-14: 11-3 record so far, collecting five more victories after winning the Freeman Memorial Invitational singles crown … 2012-13: Pac-12 All-Academic First Team selection ... finished with a 32-10 overall record, ranking second on the team in wins ... 19-6 in duals, including a 14-5 mark at the No 5 position ... clinched a team-best seven matches ... earned final No. 101 national singles ranking ... provided the clinching point in Stanford's 4-3 upset of No. 5 USC in the NCAA round of 16 with a 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 win over Gabriella DeSimone ... captured singles consolation title at the Riviera/ITA All-American Championships ... 31-9 record in doubles, playing exclusively with Stacey Tan as Stanford's No. 2 doubles team ... duo was 22-3 in duals, participated in the NCAA Doubles championship and claimed two titles (ITA Northwest Regional Championships, Freeman Memorial Invitational).

Freshman Caroline Doyle
2013-14: Owns a 10-3 record entering dual match play … shared team lead in victories at 8-2 in fall season … added two more wins at the Freeman Memorial Invitational, reaching the quarterfinals … chalked up a runner-up finish in the Red Division at the Saint Mary’s Invitational in October … followed that up with a solid effort at the USTA/ITA Northwest Regional Championships, reaching the semifinals … attended St. Ignatius College Prep as a freshman, trained at the USTA Training Center in Boca Raton, Fla., for 1.5 years, graduated from Halstrom High School in Carlsbad, Calif.

Forood’s Take:
“Kristie has obviously excelled in singles early on, and she and Carol are playing very good doubles. I think Krista’s game is starting to come together and she should be an anchor near top of the lineup. Ellen has improved her strength off the ground and isn’t relying on coming to the net as much, really looking like a much different player than even at the end of last year. Lindsey is coming off a good tournament at NCTC. Amelia brings a lot of experience and is someone who will help us in doubles as well. The freshmen are very skilled and mature, so it’s going to be all about getting stronger. Carol has the most developed all-court game, possesses experience from international and junior competitions and is an extremely good doubles player. As she adopts more structure in singles, we’re going to see her take off. Caroline’s injury set her back last year, so she was a little rusty in the fall but caught up quickly. Her forehand is huge and as a lefty with a very good serve, she has the weapons to be an attacking player. Taylor has very solid, big ground strokes and can really dominate most players at this level off the ground. She is very nifty with volleys and as we discovered this fall, a skilled doubles player.”


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