By Chris Starrs, special to USTA.com
ATHENS, Ga. -- Stanford's Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs will add their own chapter to the rich history of the Cardinal tennis program today.
By virtue of their 7-6 (1), 6-1 victory over Natalie Pluskota and Kata Szekely in the semifinals of the NCAA women's doubles championships on Sunday, Burdette and Gibbs -- the No. 2 seeded doubles team -- advance to today's championship finals and will face Georgia's unseeded Chelsey Gullickson and Nadja Gilchrist, who defeated UCLA's Courtney Dolehide and Pamela Montez 7-6 (5), 6-4 on Sunday.
But before they team up for doubles, Burdette and Gibbs will square off against each other at high noon for the singles title. It is reportedly only the seventh time in NCAA tennis history that teammates will fight against each other for the singles championship and fight with one another for the doubles crown.
Burdette, who with Hilary Barte won the doubles title last year, made her way to the singles final with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Zsofi Susanyi of California. Gibbs, the No. 3 seed, defeated No. 1 seed Allie Will of Florida 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 for her chance at the singles championship.
The Cardinal pair have had little trouble in their doubles matches and Sunday was no different, although Pluskota and Szekely took a brief 6-5 lead in the first set before Stanford rallied to tie it at 6-6 and then rolled over the Volunteers with a 6-1 tiebreaker. The second set lasted around 30 minutes as Burdette and Gibbs easily rolled over Szekely.
"We've been pretty efficient with doubles this week -- that was actually the closest match we've had so far," said Gibbs. "We let go a little bit in the first set but we got right back on it and dominated the tiebreaker and sent a message that we weren't going to be knocked off easily, not even for a set. I'm happy with the way we're plahying. We're closing off points at the net effectively and serving well. We're playing for a championship tomorrow and we're really excited about that."
"They serve really well and return really well," said Pluskota of Burdette and Gibbs. "It almost makes us kind of have to be perfect. We can't turn around and give them a point here and there in each game because they'll just take it and run with it. They don't make a lot of unforced errors and we were a little bit off, and we came up short."
In singles, Burdette had yet another quick match Sunday while Gibbs found herself in another struggle. The two, who often play one another in practice, are looking forward to fighting for the singles championship today.
"We're both looking forward to the competition," said Gibbs. "It's what we love and what we live to do, so the fact that we're in the finals together is incredible. We'll have a for-sure Stanford winner and I don't think you can go wrong with that. It should be an interesting match, I hope."
"I'm excited for a battle tomorrow," said Burdette. "There will be some great points out there and a lot of good sportsmanship, I hope. But no matter what, there's going to be a battle. I hope we both enjoy it and as they say, may the best player win -- on that day."
Today will mark the first time two Stanford players have vied against one another for the singles title since 2001 and the first time a Stanford player will win the championship since 2004.
Although their singles match should be quite memorable, it's likely they'll face their toughest challenge yet in doubles when they meet Georgia's Gullickson and Gilchrist, who will be playing their final collegiate match and their final match at home.
"We played them once in doubles back at the All-Americans and they beat us there, but we didn't play that great," said Gullickson, who won the singles title in 2010 and that same year reached the doubles semis with Gilchrist. "They'll come to the net a lot tomorrow, so we're familair with how they play. We're not going to change our game plan because they play different, We'll keep our same game plan."
When asked if she thought they might have a slight advantage playing Burdette and Gibbs after the Stanford pair competes in singles, Gullickson said, "I wouldn't say we've got an edge. They might be a little tired, but they'll be fired up. It's the finals of doubles of NCAAs. They'll be fired up."
Although he bowed out of Saturday's doubles match with teammate Robert Quiroz, citing physical and mental exhaustion, Southern California's Steve Johnson returned sharp on Sunday, winning his 71nd consecutive singles match and advancing to his second straight singles final.
The No. 1-seeded and -ranked Johnson defeated Stanford's unseeded Brad Klahn -- the last player to beat the Trojan star, in January of 2011 -- by a 6-4, 7-5 tally to set up today's finals against Kentucky's No. 3 Eric Quigley, who defeated Ohio State's Blaz Rola 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (1).
"At this point, we know each other's games so well," said Johnson of Klahn, who won the singles title in 2010 in Athens. "It's who can hit those special shots to get the break. I think that was the key, knowing I could hold easy and take my chances on his serve."
"It was a tough match today, obviously," said Klahn, who was unseeded due to missing a portion of the year due to a back injury but defeated two seeded players to reach the semifinals. "Steve played really solid on the big points. You don't win over 70 straight matches without having a lot of confidence. It was a tough way to end my career, but Steve and I go way back, so I wish him the best of luck tomorrow."
Quigley bested three seeded players -- including Duke's No. 5 Henrique Cunha in the quarterfinals on Saturday -- to reach the semifinals and despite giving up the first set, came back strong to defeat Rola, who also played doubles on Sunday.
"In the beginning of the match, I got off to a slow start being down two breaks," he said. "Once I got my feet (on) the ground, I started serving and returning well. I was lucky to get a break in the second (set) and then I got some confidence. In the third (set) I was able to hit some big shots and come through in the tiebreaker."
"(Quigley) played a great third set," said Rola, who was seeded 9-16 and defeated Virginia's No. 2 Mitchell Frank on Saturday to reach the semis. "I'm really disappointed on that tiebreaker, but overall I'm pretty happy with the way I played. It didn't happen this year but I'll be back next year and try to win it."
Rola will team with Chase Buchanan today as the No. 1-seeded doubles team to meet Texas Tech's unseeded duo of Raony Carvalho and Golzalo Escobar for the title.
The Buckeye team eliminated Oklahoma's unseeded Costin Paval and Dane Webb 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to advance to today's finals.
"We just tried to find a way," said Buchanan. "That's the only thing I can say about it. We were struggling. I was extremely tight. I wasn't making many balls and I was playing horribly in the first set. There were two huge turning points in both the second and third sets when we were down a break. They had chances to consolidate their break and they didn't. Those games lasted seven or eight deuces a couple of times. Those games were huge turning points. Once we broke back in the second set, we rolled."
"They are obviously a good team," said Oklahoma's Webb, who with Paval defeated Stanford's No. 4 Klahn and Ryan Thacher in Saturday's quarterfinals. "They've been ranked No. 1 for the whole season. We played well and served well. We played aggressive and they ended up winning a few more points, big points. We played well, though, and had a great tournament."
Carvalho and Escobar reached the semis on Saturday when USC's Johnson and Quiroz retired during a 6-3, 7-5 match and on Sunday they topped Ole Miss' unseeded Chris and Marcel Thiemann 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
"Today reflects what we've been doing this whole week -- playing, relaxing, trusting each other and making things simple," said Escobar. "Other people ask us what we are trying to do differently, because we have been improving a lot, and the answer is (we're) just trying to make the small things simple... We know that we belong in this final level and we just had to prove it."
The men's and women's singles matches will begin at noon today, with the doubles to follow.