If the women’s tennis NCAA Championship match were a movie, it would have been award-winning.
After her opponent’s forehand sailed long on court two, No. 17 Lauren Embree threw her Wilson tennis racket in the air and was immediately mobbed by her screaming teammates.
Florida did what it couldn’t do a year before, knocking off top-seeded Stanford to win the national title, the fifth in school history. With the win, the Gators defeated the top ranked team in the country at their home site in Palo Alto, Calif., where the Cardinal had not lost since 1999.
After the Gators quickly clinched the doubles point, Tuesday afternoon eerily resembled the heartbreaking 4-3 loss Florida suffered a year ago against Stanford.
Lauren Embree crushed Stanford’s dreams of a second-straight title over Florida in an epic 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (6) match against No. 22 Mallory Burdette. After losing a 5-1 lead in the first set, Embree recovered and outlasted Burdette in the third set.
The name of the game was conditioning for the two players, and Embree ultimately was the victor. Down 0-4 in the third, she took advantage of a tiring opponent and forced her into long rallies.
At the point of exhaustion, Burdette tried to shorten rallies and create more winners. The unforced errors piled up for the player her teammates call “the clincher.” Burdette sealed the championship for the Cardinal on court three last year against the Gators, so revenge was sweet for Florida.
The defense of Embree prevented any sort of déjà vu for the Cardinal. Sliding on the hard court like a classic clay-courter, the Florida native used her agility to her advantage.
After the match, she explained her success and expressed raw emotion.
“Honestly, I tried to keep fighting,” Embree said. “This is amazing, I cannot believe this is happening right now.”
The sophomore, who earned the most outstanding player award by improving to 24-0 in singles play this year, prophetically stated before the match that this team had the courage and the fight to do well. Her teammates proved her correct.
Stanford immediately asserted their will in singles after a flat performance in doubles play. Not only did Embree squander a lead in the first set, the Gators were behind on five of the six courts at the onset of set two.
A down performance by No. 6 Allie Will, the highest ranked player on the team, did not make the situation any better. Will looked hampered by a wrist injury and lost to crafty lefty No. 3 Hilary Barte 2-6, 4-6. She recognized the importance, though, her fellow Gators played in the matchup against the Cardinal.
“I am so proud of my team right now,” Will said. “They got my back every single day and they worked their butts off today. It couldn’t have happened to a better team.”
The Cardinal took on the persona of the fiery Barte and consistently forced the Gators into defensive positions on the court.
When Florida had their chances to put away Stanford, they failed. Nothing was going right in singles.
Their problems compounded after the Gators fell behind 1-2 as Sofie Oyen lost 4-6, 5-7 on court two.
A controversial point in junior Joanna Mather’s match versus Stacey Tan appeared to be the tipping point for the Gators. While her opponent utilized the corners, Mather worked the middle of the court allowing Tan to put shots away easily.
At four all in the third set, Mather called a shot out that Tan adamantly protested. The chair umpire overruled Mather in favor of Stanford giving Tan a game point. From that point on, the elder stateswoman of the Gators was out of sync.
This never was more evident than on match point, when Mather failed to move her feet to get in position for a forehand. She appeared distracted by the eruption from the pro-Stanford crowd in her 6-3, 2-6, 4-6 defeat.
Both teams seemed to have trouble with the chair umpires on every court. At one point, Stanford’s Burdette could be heard saying, “I am so confused,” following the court two chair umpire’s inability to communicate line calls.
Down 1-3, the Gators would have to depend on a freshman to get them back in the match. Olivia Janowicz turned in a poised three set victory on court six 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1. The freshman was in good position being so far away from the classic battle on court two, and she closed out her match just before the thrilling end to Embree’s.
“Lucky for me, I couldn’t see the scoreboard,” Janowicz said. “Usually if I take the focus off my match it doesn’t go as well.”
Perhaps the Gators benefited from a freshman unaware of the echoing crowd noise and the growing audience from both teams watching the match on court two.
This is the Florida’s first title since 2003 and head coach Roland Thornqvist’s second championship in nine years at UF. He said his team worked hard to complete a season in which the Gators dropped only one match.
“Last year it came down to the exact same scenario,” he said. “It took all our might to get it done. I can’t describe the feeling. This is a team really deserving this championship.”
-Coming into the final, UF was 29-0 when winning the doubles point. Stanford was 24-0.
-The Cardinal were without No. 15 and usual court four player Kristie Ahn who was nursing an ankle sprain in the semi-finals against Baylor.
-With her singles victory, Lauren Embree caps a perfect season at 24-0.
-The UF women’s tennis team leads all athletic teams at Florida with five national championships.
-Before singles play, Thronqvist said he was coaching courts 4, 5 and 6
-Barring any jumps to the pro level, the Gators return every player on the roster.
2011 NCAA Women’s All-Tournament Team
No. 1 Singles: Hilary Barte, Stanford
No. 2 Singles: Lauren Embree, Florida
No. 3 Singles: Nicole Gibbs, Stanford
No. 4 Singles: Jelena Staivuk, Baylor
No. 5 Singles: Alex Cercone, Florida
No. 6 Singles: Carolyn McVeigh, Stanford
No. 1 Doubles: Hilary Barte/Mallory Burdette, Stanford
No. 2 Doubles: Lauren Embree/Sofie Oyen, Florida
No. 3 Doubles: Diana Nakic/Sona Novakova, Baylor
Most Outstanding Player: Lauren Embree, Florida
1. (2) Alex Cercone/Allie Will, UF led (3) Hilary Barte/Mallory Burdette, SU, 6-3 DNF
2. (45) Lauren Embree/Sofie Oyen, UF d. Nicole Gibbs/Veronica Li, SU, 8-3
3. (37) Caroline Hitimana/Joanna Mather, UF d. (74) Carolyn McVeigh/Stacey Tan, SU, 8-3*
Order of Finish: 2, 3*
1. (3) Hilary Barte, SU d. (7) Allie Will, UF, 6-2, 6-4
2. (17) Lauren Embree, UF d. (22) Mallory Burdette, SU, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (6)*
3. (18) Nicole Gibbs, SU d. (91) Sofie Oyen, UF, 6-4, 7-5
4. (43) Stacey Tan, SU d. (42) Joanna Mather, UF, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4
5. (54) Alex Cercone, UF d. Veroncia Li, SU, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4
6. (53) Olivia Janowicz, UF d. Carolyn McVeigh, SU, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1
Order of Finish: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 2*
The quotes were compiled through an ESPNU telecast of the championship match.
Gator Country reporter Adam Pincus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at adamDpincus.