Ranked No. 1 in the latest edition of the ITA national poll, defending NCAA champion Stanford opens its women's dual-match tennis season on Friday by hosting UC Davis at Taube Family Tennis Stadium at 3 p.m.
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 in the NCAA tourney 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.
"This is a competitive group," Forrod said. "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 (Ahn), 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."
Ahn takes over at No. 1 for Gibbs, the two-time defending NCAA singles champion who 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.
Ahn may not boast those numbers, but she's an equally fierce competitor who has stepped up her game when it matters most -- like in last year's NCAA final against Texas A&M when she provided the clinching point. 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.
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.
"Kristie has obviously excelled in singles early on, and she and Carol are playing very good doubles," Forood said. "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," Forood added. "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."
Three big matches looming on the schedule will be Jan. 31 at Texas, Feb. 23 at home against Florida and April 5 at home against USC, a day after hosting UCLA.
"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," Forood said. "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."