The Tigers made history this weekend, earning the program’s first ever NCAA tournament win. It came in dramatic fashion in a come-from-behind 4-3 win over No. 25 Arizona State. Despite the momentous accomplishment, the weekend was, in the eyes of the team, bittersweet. No. 47 Princeton very nearly followed up its moderate upset with a once-in-a-lifetime upset a la Princeton over Georgetown in ’89. On Saturday the team faced No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The match was expected to be nothing more than a formality, enabling the Crimson Tide to pass into the Sweet 16 in Georgia. Instead, the Tigers dug in and held their ground. They had a chance to pull off the shocker if they could win a couple of three setters. But alas, the natural order of things prevailed and Princeton lost 4-2.
The Arizona State match started with controversy, as the two teams could not agree upon the location. Despite the high chance of rain in the forecast, the Sun Devils wanted to start the match outside. Princeton wanted to play indoors, since it knew its opponent rarely played indoors with the desert climate they were accustomed to in the Southwest. The Tigers ultimately relented, but barely a game into the doubles matches, the skies opened up and the match was delayed.
“We knew it would go inside,” junior Lindsay Graff said. “It wasn’t really a problem, since we expected to be playing inside.”
Arizona State played the favorite’s role well early on, jumping out to leads in each doubles match. Sophomores Amanda Muliawan and Emily Hahn were the first Tigers to wake up, going on a ferocious run to take the match 8-5. Their spurt catalyzed junior Joan Cannon and freshman Dorothy Tang to go on one of their own. They took four straight games to go up 6-5 and twice achieved match point up 7-6. But it was not to be, as the Sun Devil duo took the match in a tiebreak. Graff and freshman Alanna Wolff rallied back in their match, but ultimately forfeited the doubles point to Arizona State.
“It was tough to lose doubles point,” Graff said. “But it also made them realize they couldn’t take us lightly. It got us motivated for singles.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the momentum carried over for the Sun Devils. They took quick 6-1 first sets at positions five and six, and eked out wins at two and four. The last time Princeton had been in a situation similar to this was five full weeks ago at Yale. The Tigers didn’t roll over then and they certainly didn’t lay down on Friday. They took five of six second sets, each of which was won by no closer than two games. Muliawan was the first to finish, completing a straight-set victory to even the match. Freshman Sivan Krems kept both sets close, but fell 7-6, 7-5 to Leighann Sahagun. Tang finished her third set before Graff finished her second, falling 7-5 to bring Arizona State to the brink of clinching.
Graff soon finished up an impressive 7-5, 6-4 win over No. 69 Stephanie Vlad to keep the match alive. Junior Katie Goepel, who won just two of the first eleven games in her match, fought back brilliantly to keep the team alive. She managed to win the second set tiebreak and then closed it out with a 6-2 final set. The match was now in the hands of the freshman Wolff, the only player on the team who was guaranteed further matches this season as the Ivy League’s representative in the NCAA singles tournament. Coincidentally, her opponent was No. 37 Desirae Krawczyk, Arizona State’s only representative in the NCAA singles tournament.
It was Wolff, however, who played like the experienced favorite in the third set. She grabbed an early break as Krawczyk made unforced error upon unforced error. She maintained the advantage throughout, even forcing a match point up 5-3. She didn’t finish it then, but didn’t let the lost opportunity get to her. A few points later she had wrapped up a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory, giving Princeton its first ever NCAA tournament win.
“Everyone was lined up on either side of the net,” Graff said. “We were so much louder cheering than [Arizona State was]. We never doubted it, we were never nervous. We genuinely believed in her. They looked like they were lacking in team energy.”
“It was honestly so nerve-wracking,” Wolff said of having the match on her shoulders. “I tried not to look over at the team and just stay focused on the match.”
The Tigers went into their Round of 32 match fearless and unintimidated. But much like the previous day, they got a slow start in doubles. Facing one of the best doubles lineups in the country, Princeton fell very quickly at the one and two positions. The doubles point was Alabama’s, as was the momentum.
“We’re used to losing the doubles point, especially early in the season,” Graff said. “We all got together after doubles and said, ‘They’re not any more talented than us. This is a winnable match, this is a beatable team.’ We weren’t intimated by them.”
The first signs of disruption were evident with two opening set wins by Graff and Wolff, but the Crimson Tide still appeared poised for a quick victory having taken the other sets by an average score of 6-2. Continuing yesterday’s storyline, the second sets were a huge turning point for Princeton. Graff and Wolff finished off straight set victories against No. 65 Mary Ann Daines and No. 93 Danielle Speilmann, respectively.
“I felt pretty good,” Graff said. “I noticed in the first couple games what her weaknesses are. Planned out my strategy. I told myself if I was going to lose this match, she was gonna have to beat me. Have to make them beat you with your strengths, not give it to them. I was aggressive and I think she didn’t expect that.
Muliawan and Tang both rebounded from 6-1 first-set losses to take their second sets. Alabama won at positions four and six with ranked players and stood on the brink of victory. Tang and the Crimson Tide’s Emily Zabor traded games until it was 4-4. Zabor buckled down one last time and broke Tang. She then held serve to give Alabama the victory.
Graff admitted that her team felt disappointment after the season ending loss, but she expressed pride in her team’s campaign, saying, “We could all feel it: lot of disappointment, but it was pretty short-lived. Once we were able to take a step back and reflect on the season, we felt pride about what we’ve done.”
By the junior’s account, Princeton women’s tennis has high aspirations for next year. “We’ll be kicking it into gear from day one. We want to repeat as Ivy Champs and make the Sweet 16 if not the quarterfinals. We really believe we are one of the top teams in NCAA tennis. And it’s definitely feasible given our performance the last couple weeks.”