STANFORD, Calif.- Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs return to The Farm this week to compete in the Bank of the West Classic at Taube Family Tennis Stadium.
Burdette, ranked No. 76 in the world, began against 2010 French Open champion Italy’s Francesca Schiavone in the third match of Monday's afternoon session. Gibbs, ranked No. 191, squared off against Kiki Bertens of The Netherlands in the second match of Monday’s night session.
Both know their way around, having excelled for the Stanford women’s tennis team.
Burdette earned her first WTA victory in the Bank of the West Classic last year, defeating Anne Keothavong before falling to 2013 Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli in the second round. She went on to win two tournaments and reached the third round of the U.S. Open, losing to world No. 3 Maria Sharapova, which convinced her to forego her senior year and turn professional.
Last month, Gibbs helped the 12th-seeded Cardinal win the NCAA team championship against Texas A&M, extending the school’s streak of capturing at least one NCAA title to 37 consecutive years. She also won her second straight NCAA individual crown, to go along with one doubles trophy.
A Santa Monica, Calif. native, Gibbs decided to skip her senior season and turned pro. She flew to London, where she lost in first-round qualifying at Wimbledon. But Gibbs recently won the $50,000 Yakima Regional Hospital Challenger, an ITF event, and her third career title and first as a pro.
Like Burdette, Gibbs also played in last year’s Bank of the West Classic. After winning a first-round match against Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, she drew top-seeded and eventual champion Serena Williams in the second round, and was dispatched quickly. However, it was a great learning experience.
Burdette and Gibbs, who received a wild card into the main draw, will be in action Monday at Taube, hoping to channel good memories and support from former teammates, friends and family. Both have home-court advantage and are excited to be back.
“It’s always fun to come back to my old stomping grounds,” said the Jackson, Ga.-born Burdette, who has risen through the rankings in a short time. “I’m very comfortable here. It just feels like home.”
In three seasons at Stanford, Burdette compiled an overall record of 104-22 and was 60-8 in dual play. She was a member of the 2010 NCAA Champion Cardinal team, and lost in the finals to Florida at Taube in 2011.
“I think one of my favorite memories here in Taube – even though we ended up losing the match – was playing Florida,” said Burdette. “It was one of the most amazing atmospheres I’ve ever played in. I ended up losing the deciding match, but that was just an unbelievable match and experience to play in front of a completely packed stadium with tons of Stanford fans. I can’t help but have a couple of flashbacks of that when I walk into the stadium.”
Gibbs was a three-time All-American and posted a 24-4 overall record and 17-4 dual record this year. A two-time Honda Sports Award recipient for women’s tennis recipient, she overcame injuries to finish as one of the best players in school history. In 2012, she beat Burdette for the NCAA singles title, then teamed up with her one hour later to win the NCAA doubles crown.
“People ask me all the time with my singles and doubles titles which is my favorite and this year’s team title was by far the most inspirational and heart-wrenching,” Gibbs said. “It’s exciting and unifying playing for the honor of your school. It has sunk in, even though it was shocking to be able to pull it off.”
Burdette was rooting for the Cardinal from afar.
“I was so excited for them,” she said. “They clearly didn’t need me at all. I was in Brussels and would wake up in the middle of the night and be looking at all the live scoring and yelling at the computer screen. I’m pretty sure my neighbors thought I was crazy.”
Both Burdette and Gibbs insist life is less hectic since turning professional.
“My days are very simplified compared to how they used to be in college,” said Gibbs. “I’m practicing twice a day and doing fitness once a day, and then just dedicating the rest of my time to recovering and making sure my body is in great shape and not getting injured, which is a huge contrast to how it was in college, where I went place to place. It’s a much more relaxing lifestyle, which I think would be a shock to a lot of people. It’s much more simple than it used to be and I’m enjoying the travel.”
Added Burdette, whose older All-American sisters Erin and Lindsay also played for the Cardinal, “It’s definitely been challenging in some ways, but in other ways it actually seems a bit easier. In college, you’ve got a lot more on your plate, because you’re trying to get an education and you’re also trying to pick up your tennis game. Your days are just packed trying to keep up with both.”
“Whereas on tour, I’m just focusing on tennis. So in that way, my days are a little bit shorter, but it’s on one thing. I guess the most challenging part is being out there on your own. You don’t have a team and people with you all the time, so that can definitely be difficult. And the constant travel is something I had to get used to. But it’s been a lot of fun. You have to realize you’re not going to do this for the rest of your life, so you just have to kind of go for it and enjoy the time you have in this great sport.”
Both credited Stanford for helping them with their transition.
“Two things,” said Gibbs. “Learning how to compete under pressure. You’re never going to have more pressure than when your team needs you in order to win a dual match that is very important to your school in the NCAA’s. I found that really valuable and it makes me feel less anxious on the court when I’m out there competing for myself on tour.”
“The second thing I learned was how to win a lot. And that sounds kind of weird, but when you’re growing up and playing matches on the pro tour, you get accustomed to going out in the first and second rounds. It’s just like a natural thing you go through. I’m not at this tournament to win it; I’m in it to win rounds. In college, for me, every tournament was about trying to win the tournament. That gave me a lot of experience and I think that really translates to my success the past couple summers.”
Burdette had a different take.
“One of the biggest things I learned at Stanford was time management,” she said. “Balancing a lot of different things. After playing on a team, being a captain, handling your coaches and fellow teammates and trying to have a harmonious group, you definitely learn a lot about people. As you go along on tour, this may be an individual sport, but you always have a team around you that is working with you, whether it’s your trainer or sports psychologist or coaches. It’s almost about working with people. Those are the two things I’ve sharpened up.”
Last year’s Bank of the West Classic was a big deal for Gibbs and Burdette.
“It was just an eye-opening experience for me,” said Burdette. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to play in the tournament; it was kind of a last-minute thing. It was a launching pad for all the success I had last summer, which caused me to turn pro.”
Said Gibbs, “It was a super-inspirational tournament for me. That was my first-ever main draw win, so it will always be special, especially on my home court.”
“This year, it’s awesome because I get all the advantages of playing college tennis – all the rowdy fans and my friends coming back to my match. It’s a nice little transition tournament for me playing on such a big stage, in what two months ago was my backyard with all my friends.”
- - - - - - - - - - -- by Mark Soltau
Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 37 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport's beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com.