With a 15-match winning streak against the Cardinal and after bouncing the team from the NCAA quarterfinals last season, the No. 5 USC women’s tennis team could not have expected a more favorable matchup in the NCAA round of 16 on Friday, May 17.
But the Women of Troy ran into a Cardinal buzzsaw, as No. 12 Stanford topped USC 4-3 in a tightly contested match. The Cardinal has continued to defy the odds in the NCAA tournament, progressing all the way to the championship round against No. 3 Texas A&M, which will take place today.
“It’s very disappointing, but we certainly give them credit,” head coach Richard Gallien said. “They played really well. I thought if we got past the match, we were probably the favorites. It came down to the end, so this one will definitely sting for a while.”
The doubles play was a back-and-forth affair. Stanford’s doubles pair of Natalie Dillon and Krista Hardebeck drew first blood in the match, trouncing USC’s pair of Gabriella DeSimone and Danielle Lao 8-1. USC promptly responded, as sophomores Giuliana Olmos and Zoë Scandalis notched an 8-6 victory over Stanford’s No. 28 pair of Stacey Tan and Ellen Tsay.
The results on courts two and three set up a rubber match on the first court between USC’s heralded and undefeated duo of junior Kaitlyn Christian and sophomore Sabrina Santamaria — ranked No. 2 in the country — and Stanford’s No. 8 pair of Kristie Ahn and Nicole Gibbs. After rocketing to a 4-1 advantage, Christian and Santamaria stumbled, losing six consecutive games. Though the resilient pair battled back, they lost the tiebreaker, allowing Stanford to notch the first point of the day.
“Not winning the doubles, which we’ve tended to do most of the year, was a tough one,” Gallien said. “They basically battled a little better than we did.”
In the singles portion of the match, Stanford and USC traded several blows as six matches raged simultaneously. Stanford jumped to a 2-0 lead when No. 103 Tan defeated Olmos in two sets 6-2, 6-2. But the Women of Troy won three of the next four singles matches, with Scandalis, Lao and Christian all emerging victorious. No. 2 Santamaria lost to No. 13 Gibbs on court one in straight sets 7-6, 6-2, snapping her 21-match win streak.
The final singles match, which ultimately determined the winner, pitted No. 79 DeSimone against No. 92 Tsay, with DeSimone losing in a three-set heartbreaker, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3.
In trying to pinpoint what allowed the Cardinal to shake off its USC funk, Gallien could not offer an explanation other than Stanford playing exceptionally well. Gallien differentiated tennis from football — a game in which there are clear turning points and mistakes that cost games.
“In a football game, there’s only one ball and there’s only one field, so the momentum in a football game can go back and forth, whereas in a tennis match, you have six matches going on at the same time and there are all sorts of things going on,” Gallien said.
With a quick turnaround Wednesday, as the Women of Troy begin the NCAA Individuals, USC doesn’t have much time to dwell on its surprising loss. The doubles pairing of Christian and Santamaria will look to rebound as the No. 2 seed in the tournament, and Lao and Scandalis will join Santamaria in the singles portion in search of a national title.
“They’re going to respond really well,” Gallien said. “We’ve got the best doubles team in the country and we have three excellent singles players. We’re going to be ready.”