Taylor Davidson could have caved and nobody would have questioned her.
After all, Stanford would not have found itself on the cusp of a national championship without her clinching heroics in the previous rounds.
Battling cramps and fatigue for weeks, Davidson had little left by the postseason. The last week in particular was physically exhausting and mentally draining, with Davidson having already played three consecutive three-setters. In between matches, Davidson was doing everything possible to conserve energy and often had an IV bag sticking out of her arm.
Then the spotlight found Davidson again, in another three-setter, this time in front of a boisterous Oklahoma State crowd that had invaded nearby Tulsa on a sweltering afternoon with the 2016 NCAA championship on her shoulders.
“If I did not get through this one match, I would have probably considered the season a failure,” said Davidson.
Davidson did get through it, capping an unprecedented postseason journey as No. 15 Stanford beat Oklahoma State to become the lowest-seeded team to capture an NCAA title. The previous lowest seed to win? Stanford in 2013 as No. 12.
Davidson’s gutsy NCAA performances were somewhat surprising, considering her career-long struggles with nerves and pressure.
“I would even say that I preferred not to be in those situations,” acknowledged Davidson. “But I was playing for anyone who had ever played tennis at Stanford.”
Somehow, Davidson found that extra gear, a quality that has helped the program capture a women’s collegiate record 20 national titles (19 NCAA) spanning 44 seasons and surpassing men’s tennis as the most decorated sport on The Farm.
Three coaches have been instrumental in establishing this unprecedented level of success by creating a “next-up” mentality and unwavering belief that seemingly resonates every season with the program’s 59 All-Americans like Davidson and countless others.
Frank Brennan had been retired for eight years when he got the call from his son, Frankie. His initial reaction? No way. Frank was playing golf, traveling and attending matches at his leisure. It was the fall of 2008 and the Cardinal was in need of a volunteer assistant coach. Whose brain better to pick than the program’s winningest coach?
“I will do all the matches and travel,” said Frank, who guided Stanford to 10 NCAA titles and 510 victories in 21 years. “But I’m not much of a morning person, so I’m not doing the 8:30 a.m. hits on Monday and Wednesday.”
That would be an easy trade off. Stanford reached the final twice during Frank’s volunteer stint, winning it all in 2010. However, Frank’s most gratifying experiences came outside of competition.
“The relationships with the players,” he said. “Being a positive influence. That was so much fun.”
May 22, 2010. Athens, Georgia. The popular hotspot is 8e’s Bar, an end-of-the-night downtown staple known for its 50-cent beer specials and decade-themed movie posters. Most University of Georgia students are long gone – commencement was two weeks ago – but the trendy nightclub is packed.
For the half-dozen Stanford women’s tennis alums who made the trip hoping to witness the program’s first NCAA title since 2006, there is reason to celebrate. Earlier that afternoon, the eighth-seeded Cardinal had just overcome a recent nemesis by upsetting top-seeded Baylor in the quarterfinals.
Better yet, it’s all about whom you celebrate with. And on this late Saturday night, those former players are reliving their college experiences with an old friend. A friend they still invite to bachelorette parties, weddings, baby showers and European summer vacations. In the middle of their crowded dance circle, singing along to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, is a carefree and quietly confident Lele Forood.
Frankie Brennan’s passion for surfing started on the Jersey Shore, thanks to a pair of flippers and high-end boogie board gifted by his grandfather. Relocating to the Florida Gulf at age four presented a temporary hurdle. However, moving to California at age nine was the green light to become a surfer.
A thrill-seeking lover of extreme sports who would skate ramps and pools as a child, Frankie was in heaven. At age 16, Frankie and friends would load up the car and make frequent visits to Santa Cruz.
Thirty-three years later, Frankie is still having fun even though little has changed. Except for the vehicle, a 40-foot Monaco Diplomat motorhome featuring three flat-screen televisions, and the destinations, which range from Pacifica to Santa Barbara.
Living in San Carlos, it usually means trips to the Half Moon Bay Jetty. And a post-surf bike ride to the Old Princeton Landing Public House and Grill, where locals at the bar have only one request for Stanford’s charismatic associate head coach: to take their photo with Stanford’s latest NCAA championship trophy.
Lele, Frankie and Frank have very different personalities but share the same philosophy: the college experience should always be about having fun. It comes natural to all three coaches, given their personal close-knit relationships and investment in their players’ lives outside of tennis.
“I consider Lele and Frankie equally my friends as much as my coaches,” said Davidson. “We all have respect for them because they respect us as people.”
Erin Burdette, a four-time All-American and member of three NCAA championship teams, offers another unique perspective, having experienced both sides as a player from 2002-05 and now in her fourth season as a volunteer assistant coach alongside Lele and Frankie.
“It’s not just how to hit the ball and beat an opponent,” said Burdette. “It’s about creating a special lifetime bond.”
The longest drought between national championships for women’s tennis? A five-year stretch from 1992-96. Every four-year player, with the exception of those in the ’95 and ’96 classes, has left school with a ring.
The 1978 AIAW crown under Anne Gould was the first women’s team title in any Stanford sport. The Cardinal won 10 more championships under Frank Brennan, including six in a row from 1986-91. That dominance continued under Forood, who won it all five times in her first six seasons, nine times overall and presided over an 86-match winning streak from 2004-06.
Through the vision of Brennan and legendary head coach Dick Gould – who guided the men to 17 NCAA titles – Stanford became the sport’s gold standard. A runner-up finish was considered a “down year”. From 1999-2011 and 184 consecutive matches, Stanford women’s tennis never lost at home.
“We thought we were going to win forever,” said Forood.
Which begs the question: how does Stanford do it? Especially its last three titles, with admittedly flawed teams.
Players win matches, and Stanford unquestionably has had its share of great players. But coaches certainly help, and with the dream team of Frank Brennan, Lele Forood and Frankie Brennan, Stanford has boasted a unique blend of continuity, family and collective toughness that no program can match.
Take it from Michigan Associate Head Coach Teryn Ashley-Fitch, who as a five-time All-American and member of Stanford’s 1997 and 1999 NCAA title teams, played under all three coaches and still cherishes her memories on The Farm.
“No question, it’s the reason I am doing what I do today, because I had such a great college experience as a student-athlete in their program,” said Ashley-Fitch, now in her 11th season with the Wolverines. “With the culture, you felt a sense of history and knew what players before you had accomplished. There was a lot of pride and motivation to keep that going.”
Frank had been Forood’s personal coach since she was 10 years old. A tennis prodigy whose hand-eye coordination was highly advanced by age four, Forood’s first love was baseball but her mother, Marge, wanted her to play tennis and contacted Frank for lessons. Forood spent her summers living with the Brennan family in New Jersey while working Frank’s tennis camps and playing national junior tournaments. The arrangement served as Forood’s tennis-playing home base, as her family had moved to Fort Lauderdale, where she attended high school and became a state champion.
Forood’s regular trips to New Jersey resulted in more tennis instruction from Frank and further exposure to a sport in which she was rapidly excelling. It also eventually meant playing the role of older sister to Frankie, and Forood did everything from babysit to change diapers. The visits became even more special once Forood left for Stanford, and as the two grew older, Frankie never stopped idolizing Forood.
“Lele’s visits were so fun,” said Frankie. “She would take me and my sister to 7-Eleven to get Slurpees. She would hit balls with me. She introduced me to music like John Cougar Mellencamp and The Police. Lele was the cool big sister. I remember a tournament when I was six or seven years old and there was a rain delay. You had Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Chris Evert, and I got them all to play stickball out in this field. People are like ‘who is this kid playing with all these pro players?’ I was able to do those things all because of Lele.”
To this day, Frank believes the friendship between Frankie and Lele, even with 12 years between them, remains stronger than ever.
An All-American in 1976, Forood was a national collegiate singles finalist as a freshman and semifinalist as a sophomore, leading the Cardinal to two runner-up finishes before turning pro. She enjoyed success on tour, ranking as high as No. 30 in the world. Forood was later instrumental in organizing and promoting the first professional women's tour event in Strasbourg, France, before retiring and cutting ties with pro tennis in 1987.
Forood eventually alerted Frank that the women’s tennis head coaching position at Stanford was open. Fascinated with the prospect of becoming a college coach and intrigued by Dick Gould’s slick sales pitch of positioning Stanford as the tennis capital of the world, Frank mailed off his camp brochure as a resume. He was hired in 1979, led the Cardinal to its first NCAA championship three years later, and was off and running as the architect of a dynasty.
Frank’s wife, Terry, willingly served as his unofficial assistant coach early on, supporting with non-traditional responsibilities such as hemming skirts and making dinner reservations. Told he had some flexibility to hire a full-time assistant, Frank immediately thought of Forood.
“I was closing in on 30 and just wasn’t sure if I wanted to be around 18-year-olds again; if that was the right fit for my lifestyle,” said Forood, who also taught P.E. classes while handling equipment and travel. “But I started to really enjoy the time on court coaching tennis.”
“Lele wasn’t the rah-rah type but I supplied that,” said Frank, whose father, Frank, Sr., was Billie Jean King’s coach for 18 years and the personal instructor to President Jimmy Carter while he was in the White House. “I also knew Lele was the best friend you could ever have, she was loyal, had great character and high standards. The girls would get to know her and love her.”
It was 1996, and an opportunity was there for Frankie. New NCAA rules allowed for a volunteer assistant coach, and Stanford needed to keep pace with other schools. Frankie was working part-time as an assistant pro at Fremont Hills Country Club in Los Altos Hills. The son accepted his father’s offer.
“It was unbelievable just to be around him because I know he is the greatest coach of all time,” said Frankie, whose only previous head coaching experience came in 1995 at his alma mater, University of Redlands. “There is nobody better at dad’s combination of handling a team as individuals, knowing when to get tough, when to be loving, when to be a father and when to be a coach.”
Frankie’s coaching instincts – despite his youth and inexperience – were exceptional. Like his father, he expertly straddled the line of good cop/bad cop. During Frankie’s first season in 1997, athletic director Ted Leland and football assistant Kent Baer were watching the end of a match one afternoon. Frankie was flying around Court Six, cheering emphatically and pouring all of his fiery emotion into the match. Captivated by what he saw, Baer turned to Leland.
“I want that guy to come talk to my linebackers,” Baer said. “I want him to come talk to our team.”
Stanford broke a five-year drought and won the NCAA title in 1997, a full-circle moment considering it was the first championship together for the trio. Two years later, they won it again. The Cardinal was back. But Frank was about to throw a curveball.
“We had just won it all and it hits me that next year would be a good year to end on,” said Frank. “So, in 2000, we go undefeated for 30 matches but lose to Georgia in the NCAA final. I did not tell Lele of my plan to retire until four days before. She was shocked, a little distraught and told me she was not emotionally ready.”
“I now had to be the face of the program,” said Forood. “I didn’t even think about running practice every day or how to continue our good recruiting. The apprehension was being out in front of everything.”
Forood would figure it out. Her first season, in 2001, was a seamless transition, with the Cardinal finishing 30-0 to make Forood the first female head coach to win an NCAA tennis championship. The baton had been passed, providing Frank the peace of mind to step away and care for his family. At age 57, his decision to retire was more about providing job security for Lele and Frankie.
Through her first six seasons, Forood had remarkably totaled more NCAA championships (5) than overall losses (3). Stanford’s lineup featured ridiculous depth, with its bottom three good enough to beat the top three of most opponents. All-America talent – Laura Granville, Lauren Kalvaria, Gabriela Lastra, Alice Barnes, Amber Liu – was flooding onto campus.
Stanford has won four NCAA titles over the past 11 seasons, each time as an underdog, even as other programs have seemingly caught up. That does not stop rival coaches from marveling at the longevity of success.
“Stanford? With that team? Again?”
“Our players want what Erin has, what Amber has, what Hilary has and Nicole has,” said Forood, reeling off the names of past NCAA singles and doubles champions. “That’s why you’re here, because you want rings. This program has proven it will happen if you do your part. You need to work hard and have the right personality.”
Like Mallory Burdette, who as a freshman in 2010, rallied to win the deciding three-setter in an NCAA final, guaranteeing older sister Lindsay, a senior, finished her career with a ring.
Or Krista Hardebeck, who as a freshman in 2013, single-handedly preserved Stanford’s Directors’ Cup streak as the nation’s most successful intercollegiate athletic department, thanks to a pivotal NCAA clincher against Florida that factored into the Cardinal overtaking the Gators in one of the closest races in the award’s history.
The common thread? Two individuals, unanimously referred to at all times simply by their first names. One who is equally comfortable playing Cards Against Humanity on road trips or riding a mechanical bull after winning NCAA’s, and the other who brings a rugged, football mentality to his coaching but is always the first to break into tears on Senior Day.
“Lele and Frankie definitely gel together,” said former standout Nicole Gibbs, who turned pro after winning the second of back-to-back NCAA singles titles in 2013. “They kind of bicker like a couple because they are so familiar with each other. There is never tension between them. Everything is out on the table. That was important to our team’s chemistry.”
She should know. Gibbs, who reached a career high pro ranking of No. 68 last summer and still closely monitors Stanford’s postseason progress every May, has always valued Forood’s support. After winning both NCAA singles and doubles titles as a sophomore in 2012, Gibbs was struggling with the decision to turn pro. Forood’s advice? Stay one more year, play No. 1 and become a tougher player.
“I trusted her,” said Gibbs, who in a short time on tour has won over fans with her authentic personality and refreshing voice. “I honestly felt if Lele thought she could not get me better as a player, she would have let me go.”
Stanford won it all in 2013, giving Gibbs a team title – one of her most cherished collegiate accomplishments – to match her individual crowns.
“Lele and Frankie are staples in each other’s lives,” said Forood’s sister, Pari, who lives in New York and joins the team on East Coast trips and in the postseason. “There is an instant comfort level and intuitive knowledge of what the other is thinking. Players see this unity at the top and feel the strength of the program.”
The winningest program, forged by a lifetime bond of its coaches.