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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - June 7, 2013

A fitting finale for Gibbs

NCAA singles title marks the end of Stanford career

by Brian Risso

Stanford junior Nicole Gibbs says she'll be returning to school next year. Unfortunately for Cardinal tennis fans, her return will be only to compete her degree.

After helping the Cardinal win the NCAA team title last week and then capturing her second straight national title in singles, Gibbs is all but headed to the professional ranks.

"I'm leaving the day after finals to go to Wimbledon qualifiers," Gibbs said. "I'm getting an early start. I should only have to come back to finish my degree for one to two quarters so I've gotten enough of the way through that it shouldn't be too much of a burden when I do come back."

Come back to finish school, not tennis. After all, Gibbs has done quite a lot in her three years on The Farm and her latest effort was arguably her best.

Competing with the same sharply focused, business-like demeanor she has displayed throughout her entire career, Gibbs defeated Nebraska's Mary Weatherholt, 6-2, 6-4, on Monday afternoon to become the first repeat NCAA singles champion since former Cardinal standout Amber Liu (2003-04).

The All-American from Santa Monica ripped through the postseason competition, making the Atkins Tennis Center in Urbana, Ill., her personal playground for two weeks. Gibbs won all six of her NCAA singles contests in straight sets and closed out the year on a 14-match winning streak. In the process, Gibbs improved her career record to 30-1 during the month of May (including all NCAA team and individual play).

"I'm still a little bit shocked right now," she said. "This season has carried a lot of adversity for me. I haven't been dominant throughout, so having this dominant of a performance is a big surprise and a very welcome one to me. It's amazing to join the very elite club of people who have won two titles, and honestly, I don't feel deserving. I'm just very happy with everything that's happened these past few weeks."

Gibbs' individual accomplishment was that much more impressive, considering she was coming off such an emotionally charged run to the team title.

"I'm so happy to have won both the team and singles title," said Gibbs. "But it was so sweet to win with the team. No memory can replace that."

For at least one more hour on Monday morning, Stanford fans were treated to another dominating performance by one of the storied program's all-time greats. Becoming Stanford's 16th all-time collegiate singles champion (14 NCAA, 2 AIAW), Gibbs collected her 111th career victory and will leave behind a legacy of elite tennis.

Gibbs, who earlier this spring publicly voiced her decision to turn pro and forgo her senior year, will now focus on elevating her game to the next level. For the last two weeks in Urbana, and really since the day she first stepped foot on The Farm, it's been evident the two-time NCAA singles champion is simply on another level than her opponents.

And she kept her level of play high despite an injury this year.

"I had kind of a tough season," Gibbs said. "I ended the summer with an abdominal injury that kept me out, to varying degrees, of the fall season. I played a couple pro tournaments, but I wasn't playing anything in college. When I came back, I wasn't nearly as dominant as I had been at the one position at my school."

That wasn't the case, however, last week and again Monday against Weatherholt, a senior All-American and winningest player in Nebraska history who entered the championship match with only one loss. Weatherholt's tourney resume was also impressive, including victories over Cal's Klara Fabikova and UCLA's Robin Anderson, an opponent who handed Gibbs one of her four losses in 2013.

"It was a little bit unsettling to play such a darkhorse on such a big stage and important venue," Gibbs said. "I scouted her a little bit through the end of the week watching how she was winning her points. She's a very solid player, hits a flat ball, so (Stanford coach) Lele (Forood) and I went out after my match yesterday and just practiced fielding those lower balls, and that's the only way I knew how to prepare for today."

Then again, why should Gibbs be intimidated by any college player? After all, she's battled Serena Williams on her home court inside the Taube Family Tennis Stadium and has since continued to compete in pro tournaments with the objective of gaining experience and improving her ranking.

Gibbs bolted out to a 4-1 lead in the first set and closed out the frame 6-2 after she and Weatherholt alternated games.

Early momentum favored Weatherholt in the second set, racing to a 2-0 lead and handing Gibbs her first multi-game deficit in several days. Gibbs battled back to 2-2, only to see Weatherholt move back in front 3-2.

After Gibbs evened the match at 3-3, Weatherholt required attention from the trainers and it became clear she was not at full strength. The Cornhusker has battled injury during her career, redshirting the 2010-11 campaign after suffering an ACL tear.

Tied at 4-4 in the second set, Gibbs found another gear and closed out the match 6-4.

Gibbs is only the second Stanford player to win an NCAA team, singles and doubles title in her career, teaming with Mallory Burdette to capture the 2012 doubles crown. Also accomplishing the feat was Linda Gates (Team: 1982, 1984, Singles: 1985, Doubles: 1984, 1985).

Monday's singles title was the fourth career for Gibbs, who last year claimed the NCAA Championships, Pac-12 Championships and ITA Northwest Regional Championships.

Gibbs also became the first player to capture the NCAA team and singles title in the same year since Duke's Mallory Cecil (2009) in College Station, Texas.

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