Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - February 3, 2012

They're hoping to serve winners

Deep and talented Cardinal teams open seasons with expectations of challenging for NCAA titles

by Rick Eymer

Senior Ryan Thacher has filled an important role for the sixth-ranked Stanford men's tennis team through its first four matches, all victories. He played at the top of the singles ladder, taking over for his injured friend and doubles partner Bradley Klahn.

Now comes the hard part. Klahn remains unavailable this weekend with three-time defending NCAA champion USC coming to town for a 1:30 p.m. match on Friday. UCLA follows Saturday for a 1 p.m. match. Both matches are nonconference.

The 37th-ranked Thacher will have his hands full with USC's top player, defending NCAA singles champion Steve Johnson.

"This may be their best team in the last four years," Stanford coach John Whitlinger said. "They have a couple of new guys in who are really, really good. That's a deep, solid lineup."

Stanford has a pretty good lineup, even without Klahn available. The Cardinal, which reached the quarterfinals of last year's NCAA team tournament, has its own set of veterans and newcomers.

Thacher and Klahn, who reached the finals of the NCAA doubles tournament last spring, are the only seniors and the rest of the team has been playing well of late.

"Ryan had a great NCAA tournament and he's off to a good start," Whitlinger said. "He's playing as well as I've seen him play. He's committed and stepped into the role of leader."

Junior Matt Kandath, ranked 75th, has impressed Whitlinger with his work ethic. He has been playing, and winning, at No. 2 singles.

"He's playing the best tennis of his career," Whitlinger said. "I like where the team is and where the team is going. The chemistry is good and everybody is helping each other."

Junior Denis Lin, freshmen John Morrissey and Robert Stineman, and sophomore Daniel Ho also have played up because of Klahn's injury.

"We're a pretty deep team this year," Whitlinger said. "Denis is a talented tennis player and when he's good, he's really good. He had a tough start this year but we have a lot of confidence in him."

Morrissey held the No. 1 ranking at some point while competing in 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U. Stineman is a two-time Illinois state champion. Ho played doubles in last year's NCAA tournament.

Junior Walker Kehrer, who won six of his final seven matches last year, has been playing doubles.

Menlo School grad Jamin Ball (9-9 last year as a freshman) fills an important position for the Cardinal. He's like the sixth man in basketball, always ready to enter the starting lineup and produce.

"He's the next man in," said Whitlinger. "That's the toughest position to be in and he's handling it so well. He could play this weekend and he's ready to go. It's a nice safety valve to have."

Junior Sam Ecker was a top youth player and also fills in where needed. Sophomore Fawaz Hourani played for Jordan's Davis Cup team in 2010. Freshman Gregory Zerkalz, a blue belt in karate, fills out the roster.

In addition to playing two of the top teams in the Pac-12 Conference, as well as the nation, this weekend, Stanford Director of Tennis Dick Gould is hosting a free clinic for kids eighth grade and younger on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. in conjunction with USTA Campus Day. There's no registration, just bring your own racket and be ready to play.

The two matches this weekend is the start of a five-match homestand that leads into the National Team Indoor Championships in Charlottesville, Va., beginning Feb. 16.

Whitlinger hopes to get Klahn, the NCAA singles champion two years ago, back in the lineup by then.

"He's getting closer," Whitlinger said. "He's been practicing but he hasn't been cleared to go full blast. We're being careful with him because he has a nice future ahead of him. We're not rushing anything."

The Pac-12 (eight teams play tennis) figures to be another dogfight, with California and Washington also part of the conversation. Utah comes in this season and replaces Arizona State, which dropped its varsity program.

That road trip at the end of March, just after midterms, looks interesting, with stops at Pepperdine, Arizona and Utah.

"You can't afford to breathe easy because there are so many good teams," Whitlinger said. "Our focus is down the road and playing our best tennis in May."

The Pac-12 coaches also voted to replace the season-ending individual conference tournament in Ojai with a team tournament beginning April 25. The top two teams receive a bye into the semifinal, the third and fourth place teams receive a bye into the quarterfinal. The first round will feature No. 5 vs. No. 8 and No. 6 vs. No. 7, with the winners advancing to the quarterfinal.

Women's tennis

Stanford junior Mallory Burdette has been there to experience the highest high on a tennis court and also to suffer the lowest low. She enters the season ranked No. 1 nationally first in both singles and doubles and likely will be asked to fill the top spot on the Cardinal ladder, vacant because Hilary Barte graduated.

Burdette's experience will be even more valuable on a team with one senior but a lot of talented players. Burdette won the NCAA doubles title (with Barte) last year and clinched Stanford's national championship as a rookie. She was also on the court when Florida clinched its national title last year following a grueling, third-set tiebreaker.

She'll have plenty of support. Sophomore Nicole Gibbs earned All-America accolades in a freshman campaign that saw her record a team-high 46 victories. Sophomore Kristie Ahn was honored by the ITA and Pac-10 as both organizations' Rookie of the Year while also capturing two singles titles.

Then there is the case of junior Stacey Tan, who reached the NCAA singles championship match despite playing the majority of her matches at No. 5 during the regular season.

Freshman Ellen Tsay had a successful fall season and could join a crowded lineup of top-notch players as the Cardinal looks to regain its homecourt magic.

Senior Veronica Li once again will play an important role as a seasoned veteran who is more than capable of winning her share of matches. She has a career record of 45-14, playing No. 4 through No. 6. Li has experience playing in high-pressure postseason matches, as well, contributing a win in Stanford's national championship win over Florida two years ago.

The Gators are part of a 13-match home schedule this year, which began Wednesday with a 6-1 victory over UC Davis. Florida returns to the site of its national title on Sunday, Feb. 12, with a match time set for noon.

Stanford's impressive NCAA record 184 consecutive home matches is history, although the triumphant legacy at Taube Family Tennis Center remains. The Cardinal has won 240 of the past 242 matches played there.

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