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With Zhao absent, Stanford women's tennis will be tested

 

Juniors Taylor Davidson and Caroline Doyle set an example of teamwork during the fall tennis season that could prove vital to Stanford's national championship hopes this spring.

Last year, Davidson and Doyle were paired with different partners, neither of whom will be with the No. 7-ranked Cardinal when it opens its dual-match season on Monday against Santa Clara at 1:30 p.m.

About a week before the USTA/ITA Northwest regional championships in October, the duo approached Stanford coach Lele Forood with the idea of playing together.

They got to practice once together before winning the regional doubles title and advancing to the national championships in New York, where they won the consolation title.

Overall, they own three doubles titles, with the latest being last weekend at the NCTC Classic in Indian Wells, and are 12-1 as a team.

Davidson also advanced in singles competition, winning the regional title. Doyle reached the semifinal round.

"I wanted to see how they did as a team," Forood said. "They figured out how to play together and are continuing to hit their stride. That bodes well for us."

Davidson was part of the Pac-12 Doubles Team of the Year with junior Carol Zhao last year. Doyle and Ellen Tsay, who graduated, were partners last season. Both of them earned All-American honors in doubles.

Zhao, who is playing on the USTA pro circuit as part of her preparation with the Canadian National Team, is expected to return to the team for the spring quarter -- most likely around March 20.

"She's definitely coming back for spring quarter," said Forood. "Her likely intention is to turn pro after the school season."

Forood foresees no problems pairing Zhao with someone else when she does get back.

"Carol is the consummate team player," Forood said. "She'll take whoever seems to be the best fit."

Forood, however, knows where Zhao will be playing.

"She's going back at No. 1, no doubt about it," Forood said.

Meanwhile, senior Lindsey Kostas played with freshman Noamie Rosenberg in Indian Wells. The doubles team of senior Krista Hardebeck and freshman Melissa Lord reached the semifinals at the Freeman Invitational in Las Vegas.

For Rosenberg, Lord and freshman Caroline Lampl, playing against quality opponents was a big step in their introduction to college tennis.

"It was really important for the freshmen to play as many matches as possible," Forood said. "We had some nice performances in both tournaments."

Lampl, in winning the consolation title at UNLV, competed against top players from Florida, Duke and North Carolina. Hardebeck and Lord recorded victories over players ranked in the top 100.

"That was critical," Forood said. "Krista is playing well. She's motivated. She wants to make a statement this year and she's playing at a higher level. Caroline is learning what it takes to close matches out."

Davidson, Doyle and Hardebeck will start the season in the top three spots. Rosenberg, Lampl and Lord, ranked as high as third in the world in juniors, will make up spots 4-6 in some order.

"Melissa learned a lot this weekend," Forood said. "Those were all experience matches for her. She beat a really good Duke player. It's all about learning."

Zhao is scheduled to return to the lineup just in time for the stretch run and into the postseason. She spent last year as the No. 1 singles player, winning 35 of 40 matches and going 22-3 against nationally ranked opponents. Zhao ended the year ranked No. 2 in the country.

"Her game has taken off," Forood said. "From the time she got her as a freshman to the end of last year, she has grown so much as a player. The challenge of playing top-100 players every week is going to make her game that much better. She's realizing what kind of focus it takes."

Freshmen Elizabeth Yao, a Menlo School grad, and Kimberly Yee also got tested over the weekend. Castilleja grad Paulette Wolak, a walk-on last year, also saw action.

Yao continues to work on technical changes in her game that have put her behind. Wolak is dealing with a wrist problem.

Stanford's first road trip features a match at defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Vanderbilt. The Cardinal also play No. 25 Mississippi.

The home schedule features matches against three of the top nine ranked teams in No. 2 USC, No. 3 Florida and No. 9 UCLA. Stanford also hosts current No. 19 Pepperdine and No. 20 Clemson.

"The first couple of weeks are pivotal for us," Forood said. "We need to make noise against good teams."

Four Pac-12 teams are ranked among the top nine in the nation. Vanderbilt knocked off both the Trojans, who were ranked first at the time, and Bruins in the Final Four.

"USC is as good as last year," Forood said. "UCLA graduated a lot from a dominant team. They'll be young with a lot to prove."

The early matches will help determine Stanford's seeding into the NCAA tournament. The Cardinal would like to finish the regular season among the top 10. That will be tough with Zhao likely missing matches against seven of the eight ranked teams currently on Stanford's schedule.

"For the freshmen, the first three months is all about competing and doing what they can do," Forood said. "In April and May we will get a whole lot better."

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