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NCAA WOMEN’S TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIP : Stanford’s No. 3 Graham Is No. 1 in the Nation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stanford’s Debbie Graham wasn’t second-fiddle in a season in which the Cardinal was 29-0 and national team champion.

She was third-fiddle, behind No. 1 Meredith McGrath and reigning national singles champion Sandra Birch.

But on Thursday, Graham, a graduate of Los Amigos High in Fountain Valley, finished the year No. 1 in the nation, defeating Nicole Arendt of Florida, 6-3, 6-3, to win the NCAA Women’s Tennis Championships at Gainesville, Fla.

McGrath lost in the tournament’s second round, and Graham upset Birch in Wednesday’s semifinals.

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Graham said her being overlooked was a motivating factor.

“Whenever anyone ever thinks about Stanford tennis, it’s always Sandra and Meredith and I’m sitting at No. 3,” Graham said. “I’m the No. 3 player in the middle and no one ever cares. I wanted to prove to everyone that Stanford is not just its one and two players.”

Graham did not lose a set during the tournament, but Arendt had a far more difficult route to the finals. She was extended to three sets in both Tuesday’s quarterfinals and Wednesday’s semifinals.

“I was tired, but tried not to think about it,” Arendt said. “I would say something carried over (from the semifinals).”

Both players remained on serve until the eighth game, when Graham recorded the only service break of the first set.

“The first set was so important for me to win,” Graham said, “because I started off the match, and I don’t remember a time where I’ve ever been so nervous. I was thinking about so many different things. I felt that she was really nervous in the beginning too.”

Graham, seeded sixth, broke Arendt in the first and third games of the second set taking a 4-0 lead.

“I wasn’t serving extremely well at all today,” said Arendt, who got just 53% of her first serves in compared to 60% by Graham. “I missed a lot of first serves and second serves were landing short.”

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Arendt, the seventh seed, was able to break Graham’s serve twice, pulling to within 5-3, before Graham served out the match.

“I have this tendency to get up sometimes and then choke,” Grahm said. “I start looking ahead.”

“When I was down, 5-3, I thought there was a shot, there was a little light, but she blew it out real fast,” Arendt said.

The NCAA title is Graham’s second important tournament victory in as many months. She defeated McGrath in the final of last month’s Pacific 10 Tournament in Ojai.

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“After I won the Pac-10s, people kept coming up to me and said that it’s tradition that the winner of the Pac-10s goes on to win the nationals,” Graham said. “I wasn’t looking ahead that far, but it kind of made me nervous, so I tried to put it into the back of my mind.”

Graham and Birch lost to their top-seeded Stanford teammates McGrath and Teri Whitlinger, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the doubles finals.

Graham, a sophomore, says she will stay in school until getting a degree and then join the professional tour. This summer, she plans on playing in U.S. Tennis Assn. satellite tour events.


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