By Brian Risso
Stanford Sports Information
One of them owns the team lead in both overall victories (37-5) and dual match wins (22-0). She is three victories shy of becoming the first Stanford player to reach the 40-win plateau since Erin Burdette and Gabriela Lastra both accomplished the feat in 2001-02.
The other is right behind at 36-3 overall and 18-0 in dual-match play. In addition to entering the postseason on a 24-match winning streak, she has captured a pair of singles titles this year, taking home the hardware at the ITA Northwest Regional Championships and the Pac-10 Championships.
Together, they have anchored the middle of Stanford's lineup all season, strengthening the team's already-superior depth. The kind of depth that makes the Cardinal a serious contender to win back-to-back NCAA titles.
And, by the way, they're only freshmen.
Highly touted rookies Kristie Ahn and Nicole Gibbs are living up to their reputations as two of the elite newcomers on the women's college tennis scene.
"Kristie and Nicole have been very professional in how they conduct themselves during their matches and that has a lot to do with their success," said head coach Lele Forood, who has alternated the dynamic duo between the Nos. 3 and 4 positions. "They have also bought into the idea that they are about the same right now in ability level, so it has not been a problem switching them back and forth. I think that was the best thing, just in order to get them exposure and things like that."
Ahn has the hot hand at the moment, riding a 24-match winning streak that includes an upset over second-ranked Maria Sanchez of USC to capture the Pac-10 Championships singles title. Ranked 15th nationally, Ahn is also 18-3 in tournament play and 16-0 in duals (9-0 at the No. 3 spot, 7-0 at the No. 4 spot).
Gibbs is right there, as well, leading the Cardinal with team-best marks of 37-5 overall and 22-0 in duals (11-0 at the No. 3 spot, 8-0 at the No. 4 spot). She has simply pounded opponents, winning 18 sets this year by a score of 6-0. Just how dominant has Gibbs been this year? Of her five losses, two of them came against Ahn.
There are times when Forood, a diehard San Francisco Giants fan, must feel like she's switched places with Bruce Bochy and is managing the pitching-rich 2010 World Series champions. Stanford's singles lineup is nationally ranked and unbelievably loaded, the equivalent of having a big league starting rotation with five No. 1 starters.
Arguably talented enough to play No. 1, 2 or 3 for any other team, the Cardinal freshmen have accepted their lineup assignments in a business-like manner and understand their role in the big picture.
"They realize there is some seniority involved and they are playing behind some really good players who have already proven themselves over a season or two," explained Forood, speaking specifically about three-time All-American senior Hilary Barte at No. 1 and 2010 NCAA championship-clinching sophomore Mallory Burdette at No. 2. "Kristie and Nicole understand how the system works."
"I think Hil and Mal have been doing a great job at No. 1 and 2," explained Ahn, a native of Upper Saddle River, N.J. "At any other school, we might be playing No. 1 or 2. But the fact is, our team is so good, we just need to get those points at No. 3 and 4. Honestly, it's just such an honor to be playing on the team to begin with. So it doesn't really matter what position you play. Lele always tells us to own our court. Also, you can always improve yourself regardless of what level you are playing."
"Every player has a goal of ultimately playing No. 1 for their team, but we have really seen it as our job this year to simply win the match wherever we are placed," added Gibbs, who hails from Santa Monica. "We recognize that we are part of an incredibly talented team, and that means we may be playing lower in the lineup. So I think we've done a really good job of pushing each other throughout the season and working hard in practice. It has really paid off in our results this year and I'm proud of what we have done."
The system has worked in part because Ahn and Gibbs have such good chemistry. The two players have known each other since they were 12 years old, winning a U-14 doubles tournament in Syracuse. Last summer, the duo won a $50,000 pro tournament. Both players also competed in the Bank of the West Classic last July, but only in singles action.
That being said, the move to collegiate tennis has been challenging at times.
"It definitely has been a big transition, not just with the matches, but also the practices and the workouts," said Ahn, who became the first Stanford player to win the Pac-10 Championships singles crown since Lastra in 2002. "It's been fun working out with 10 other girls because I think coming into college, it's not normal to do that. I have also been able to mature more, by both playing and watching matches. Being around this environment has allowed me to grow."
Both players were already polished products coming into college, boasting impressive prep resumes and attracting the attention of several top universities. Ahn and Gibbs have been equally successful on the doubles side, partnering as Stanford's No. 2 doubles team behind Barte and Burdette. The first-year duo enters the postseason ranked No. 34 in the country while chalking up a 21-9 overall record and 14-4 dual match ledger.
"Growing up, I was always scared of playing at the net in doubles," said Gibbs. "In singles, you have that sensation of moving forward on your own terms, whereas in doubles you are standing in and the other person just whacks the ball. Having a partner like Kristie who hits so authoritatively from the baseline and off her serves has made me so much more comfortable at the net. I'm free to move around and it's easy for me to finish points because she sets me up so well."
"We all know Nicole for this- she is gritty, stays focused and doesn't want to give away free points. I start attacking the net and of course, she is so solid from the baseline, that I don't have to worry she is going to miss the ball. I feel so comfortable she is going to hit it hard enough, that I can just go. We don't even have to tell each other sometimes, we just know. That comes from playing doubles together for almost a year now."
Playing a sport in which individual success is usually at the forefront, Ahn and Gibbs have bought into the team concept from day one.
"If someone is having a bad day, that's almost like lighting a fire under the rest of us, knowing we have to pick it up for that person," stated Gibbs. "At the end of the day, you don't want anyone thinking their match was the difference in the overall result. Plus, I think we have an incredibly cohesive team that gets along on the court and spends a lot of time together voluntarily off the court. Some teams have enough of each other through matches, training, practice, dinners. I feel that we have a lot of really strong relationships off the court as well."
Those relationships off the court have even translated into more fan support for Ahn and Gibbs at home matches. It's not surprising to see a cluster of freshmen football players attending afternoon tennis matches, supporting their fellow classmates from the dorms. Just like her players, Forood appreciates the extra student crowd on gameday, calling it "very refreshing" to see football players cheering on the tennis team.
"It's so awesome to have the football players come out," added Ahn. "I think it was our match against UCLA. They were just so rowdy, supporting our team and it also helped to get into our opponents' heads. It makes a big difference to know that people support you so much. That's why I think NCAA's this year could be insane. As a team, we have tried to get out for women's gymnastics, women's basketball, men's volleyball and other events, so they will show us support as well."