There is something vital about one-to-one confrontations in sports. The subtle tension involved when Nolan Ryan challenges Reggie Jackson with a high, hard one, when Gus Johnson challenges Dave DeBusschere with a baseline drive, when Roscoe Tanner challenges Jimmy Connors with his big serve, is the kind of thing that makes athletic competition great.
The exciting tension of head-to-head battle becomes brutal and dreaded tension, however, when the battle takes place between teammates vying for a spot on the squad. It happens in all sports at Harvard, of course, but the most painful examples are the seat-races of crew and the challenge matches of tennis.
When you ask a member of the tennis team about challenge matches, the response sounds like one of those old Listerine commercials. They hate it, but they do it a couple of times each year.
"It's really rough; just unbelievable," senior captain Dan Waldman (who is listed as a possible All-American in the current Tennis Week) said yesterday. "The pressure is so much more than playing regular-season matches, except maybe for two or three big matches."
The way the challenge match wystem works is pretty complicated, but it goes something like this. Each player has a numerical rank from last year and from previous challenge matches. One player challenges the next highest player to a match. The loser of the match then becomes eligible for a challenge from the next lowest player. The top six play varsity.
The formula seems simple on paper, but when you get a dozen or so guys grinding it out at Palmer Dixon this week--the matches started Tuesday--the pressure is incredible. A whole year's work boils down to a couple of ten-game pro sets.
Sophomore Scott Walker, like the rest of the team, has some pretty definite feelings about challenge matches: "I really hate them."
The problem with the challenge matches, more than anything, seems to be the pressure. And the tennis team is an incredibly friendly and tight-knit group, so the tension is especially pronounced.
"The combination of fighting for a place on the team and playing against your friends makes it really bad," Walker said yesterday. "I never play my best tennis in challenge matches."
"Once when I was a sophomore," Waldman said, "I played like a third grader in a match. It brings out the worst tennis in people."
Still more testimony against the dread matches comes form Al Bunis: "They're terrible. I've never played any matches with as much pressure on me as there is in a challenge match."
Todd Lundy, who currently stands at number two, said yesterday, "It has so much bearing on the rest of the season--there's really a lot of pressure."
Almost everyone agrees, though, that challenge matches are the only fair wayfor coach Dave Fish to settle the squad's lineup. As Bunin said, "I hate 'em, but I think you have to have some of them"
At present, only a few things are certain about the matches--Waldman will be somewhere near the top, and so will Lundy. And there will be a lot of sweating this week at the Palmer Dixon courts.