Sophomore Don Pompan, the number one player on the Harvard tennis team, was walking past Leverett House one day last fall--striding purposefully, chattering non-stop to two friends, carrying a couple of organic chemistry books under his arm--when a teammate observing this scene turned and said, "You know, Don treats his whole life like it's reading period."
And when you consider what Pompan has done on the tennis court for the Crimson this spring, you would have to agree that the only possible evaluation of his performance is Group I. The intense, competitive Californian won the New England tennis championship without losing a set last weekend, virtually ensuring a spot in the NCAA tournament. His season's record stands at 18-3, 14-0 east of the San Andreas fault.
More important, he has fashioned his own special brand of third-set lightning this season, winning all seven of his matches that have gone the full three sets by a combined game total of 44 to 18.
Pompan who combines extremes of intensity and clownishness in his personality is all business on the court. In a match, he plays with trance-like concentration and stalks his opponent constantly. More often than not, the opponent cracks.
"It's just my philosophy that a tennis match is inevitably going to come down to a few points." Pompan said yesterday morning as the team prepared to leave for its biggest match of the year at Princeton. "It's the player that wins those few points who will take the match. Once you recognize that you're one step ahead of the game. A lot of players are under the illusion that they're going to blow a player out, but if it's a good player, he's always going to be in the match."
Pompan himself fits the description. He adapts to match situations so well that he can stay in the match even against players at a level or two above him. Nationally ranked Rocky Vasquez of Pepperdine and Matt Woolridge of Irvinc both handled him in straight sets during Harvard's first week of play, but each game was tightly contested.
"He's so solid that unless the guy really comes out and blows him off, he's always in the match," doubles partner Andy Chaikovsky said. "Almost at any level of tennis, somebody will break down a little sometimes. Not Don."
Pompan, in fact, doesn't break down in any phase of life. A study in ceaseless energy, he works on his pre-med course-work non-stop sometimes even at matches and once he starts talking it's tough to make him stop.
He'll talk your ear off about any subject, and he loves to do imitations of people ranging from Maxwell Smart to Leonard K. Nash to Brent Musburger. And he's been known to rattle off questions in machine-gun fashion, sometimes leaving no time for a response.
He is, unquestionably, the number one character on a tennis team that has more than its share of jokers. And his gregarious nature has earned him a team record number of nicknames--Pomps, Pompano and Donaldo, among others.
Pompan, who is a dead ringer for Starsky the TV detective, often uses his clownishness at appropriate moments. On the spring trip, at a time when intra-squad rivalry for positions on the varsity ladder was particularly tense. Pompan established a "humor ladder" and arbitrarily moved teammates up and down the ladder according to how funny he thought their jokes were.
Another time, just before altough match, Pompan looked down and said: "Hey, look how small those people are down there. They look like ants. Oh, they are ants."
At times, though, the zaniness gives way to ultra-seriousness. "At the New Englands, anytime we'd go out on the court I'd be talking to people I knew there," Chaikovsky, a native of Hartford, said, "and he'd say. 'C'mon, Chai, quit signing autographs and play.'"
He has been called anything from a "wild man" to "a pain" to practice with, and often times at practice he will berate his teammates for missing shots.
"I try not to joke around in practice: I try to be fairly serious," he said, because you have to be serious in a match.
"Some players joke around in practice, and then in a match all of a student it's four all in the third set, and their muscles aren't used to it. You have to get acclimated to that kind of situation, and the best way is to practice it."
Pompan's dedication has gone a long way toward elevating his game since he came here in the fall of 19. For years one of the top 20 players in his national age group rankings. Pompan has worked with coach Dave Fish and picked up his game a notch at Harvard.
As a result, the components of his game, while not yet at the level of an All-American, are all solid. The Southern California staple a big forehand remains his most lethal weapon, but he has improved other aspects of his game to the point where he has no weaknesses.
The serve (a slice, spot-picking variety), the compact groundstrokes, the volley and the overhead are all more than adequate. His approach shots are deadly, his court movement and quickness easily the best on the team.
"He has relative weaknesses, but it's not as if you can exploit them consistently." Chaikovsky said. And, as captain Kevin Shaw put it. "Don doesn't do any one thing to overpower you, it's just that in the course of a match every shot he hits wears you down."
The annuals of tennis teem, though, with players who have solid games, all the shots even, sometimes one outstanding weapon- but fizzle in the heat of competition.
But Pompan thrives on pressure. If one tries to measure his overall talent, his court movement, approach shots and adaptability take a back seat to his confidence and competitiveness.
"As he puts it," says Chaikovsky, "when he goes on the court he tells himself, 'Hey, there are so many ways I can beat this guy. Whereas somebody else might go out and say 'Hey, this guy's a really good player,' Don says, 'Hey, I can really put this guy away.'"
Unbridled confidence is the only way, for instance, to explain Pompan's belief that he has any chance today in his confrontation at number one against Princeton's Jay Lapidus, the ball-crushing seventh-ranked player in the country. The two have never played before, but Lapidus has beaten or lost narrowly to every top college player and even given a scare to some top pros.
"Basically, I think Lapidus is one step beyond anyone I've played this year." Pompan said. "But on the other hand, he can be beaten if you stay close enough to win, because very few guys stay close to him, and I don't think he's used to playing these matches where the underdog stays right with him."
"I think I can stay within striking distance, and if it comes down to a few points. I could win." Pompan continued. "I'm going to have to play the most tenacious match of my life."
Princeton coach Dave Benjamin, a '68 Harvard grad who has turned the Tigers into a perennial national power (they are ranked 12th currently), gave Pompan very little chance to win.
"In terms of how they match up. Don, in order to stay even, would really have to play over his head." Benjamin said. "There doesn't seem to me to be anything he can do to burn Jay. If Don plays the greatest match of his life and Jay's really off, you know, anything's possible, but I'd have to say at this point that Don's not in the same league."
And so Pompan the miracle-sophomore will probably have his mortality reinforced today, and his 14-match winning streak ended.
Still, you never know just how good he could get in the years to come. Jimmy Connors doesn't have to worry--no matter what. Pompan won't get that good, and besides, he wants to be a doctor and not a tennis player.
In his relatively limited goals, though. Pompan could soar. He wants a shot at being a college All-American, he wants Harvard's improving program to become a national power ("If that means playing third and recruiting some good players, that's okay with me"), and he wants to try a year or more playing pro. And if he is able to develop one big weapon or raise his overall play a level or two, he could do quite well.
"All year, I concentrate on schoolwork, and then I go home and play these guys I've been reading about at the end of the summer and do well against them," Pompan said in his quick-paced voice.
"I'm going to take a year off before grad school and see how good I can be. I'll play at least a year on the pro tour just to see how far I can go--so all my life I don't say I could have been good, who was that guy who said it. I could have been a contendah?"
Pompan paused a second, then finished his non-stop stream of monologue. "I just hope," he said, "that the bubble doesn't burst before I get there."
Probably not. Don Bubbles just don't burst for guys who treat their whole life as if it's reading period.