By Rick Eymer
Senior Kristie Ahn's health, at least for Stanford's fall women's tennis season, is of no concern. She's healthy, and you can ask St. Mary's senior Jenny Jullien, who did everything but call upon the tennis spirits to try and beat her.
"It's nice to be healthy," Ahn said after downing Jullien, 6-4, 6-2, in the singles championship of the USTA/ITA Northwest Regional Championships at Stanford on Tuesday. "This is the first time I've started a season with a clean slate."
Ahn, who won this event as a freshman in 2010, has steadily worked to overcome adversity to become the leader of the Cardinal this season. She had sprained ankles and stress fractures in her foot over the course of her career and was truly healthy for the first time right about NCAA tournament time.
Her health was Stanford's advantage in its surprise national championship. Ahn recorded the clinching point in the Cardinal's 4-3 victory over Texas A&M in the national title match.
Stanford, seeded 12th, became the lowest seeded team to win the national championship, and the Cardinal needed to beat No. 5 USC, No. 4 Georgia and No. 1 Florida just to reach the title match against the third-seeded Aggies, who went through No. 14 Virginia, No. 6 Miami and No. 7 UCLA to make it to the finals for the first team in school history.
"Winning any title is great," Ahn said. "There's a different feel to it when you win as an individual."
Cardinal coach Lele Forood used the fall tournament to gauge her three freshmen players Taylor Davidson, Caroline Doyle and Carol Zhao, and how they would fit into the mix.
"The last two tournaments have been good for them," Forood said. "It's a chance to get established and play against college players. It's very different from playing juniors."
All three freshmen joined their elder teammates -- Ahn, junior Ellen Tsay and sophomore Krista Hardebeck -- in reaching the fourth round of the championship.
The freshmen kept going too, each qualifying for the quarterfinals, with Doyle reaching the semifinal. All three doubles teams, each matching a freshman with a returnee, reached the quarterfinals.
"They've all played Challengers and other professional events," Forood said. "There's something else attached when you play for a team. There's a burden to that and they are getting used to it."
Tsay and Davidson beat Ahn and Zhao, 8-6, in the doubles championship match.
"It's going to be a good combination of veterans and newcomers," Ahn said. "There is lots of fire and passion."
The freshmen won't have to worry about filling big shoes, even though Natalie Dillon and Stacey Tan graduated and Nicole Gibbs, the two-time Honda Award winner as the nation's top singles player, turned pro.
"Gibbsy, there are very few like her," Ahn said. "She was a fantastic No. 1 player. As one leaves, others have the opportunity to stand up. I'm excited to see where we're going."
There's reason to be optimistic this year, even without Gibbs. Stanford won last year's national title despite losing the hard-hitting Mallory Burdette, who had turned pro just before school started and was ranked in the top 100 when she was up late in a Belgium hotel screaming at her computer last May 21.
Hopefully, Gibbs and Burdette, who won an NCAA doubles title together, can enter the same tournament this May, so there can be two screaming Cardinal fans.
Jullien did a little screaming of her own, frustrated by Ahn's placement. The French woman yelled, "where did that angle come from?" after one of Ahn's crosscourt shots bounced just inside the line for a point.
"I had to turn away and laugh at that one," Ahn said. "I looked up in the stands and shrugged. I think that helped me loosen up though. I started the match tight and there were a lot of emotions for me."
Emotions, she hopes, that lead to another celebration in May.