After losing its top five players from one of the best men's tennis teams ever, squads around the region thought Harvard would be ripe for slaughter. Instead, the Crimson has turned to its younger players and is now...
Although most of them are not even old enough to (legally) enter a bar, the Harvard men's tennis team--led by two sophomores, three freshmen and a junior--is still favored by many to win the Ivy League for the fifth year in a row.
All this in spite of losing the top five players from last year's squad--which reached the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time ever last spring.
"I think our chances of winning the Ivies are fairly good, seeing as we won the ECAC tournament in the fall, which included many Ivy League teams," freshman Danny Chung said.
Youth is a double-edged sword: While enthusiasm can carry a team, inexperience can drop it just as quickly. Still, Head Coach David Fish is optimistic about the team's potential.
"We have a great nucleus. It's definitely one we can build with," Fish said. "If the players keep at it, there's no telling what will happen."
"We're not a team of experienced veterans," said sophomore Andrew Rueb, who is ranked first on the team.
Junior Marshall Burroughs will play number two on the team behind Rueb, according to Fish. Sophomore Umesha Wallooppillai will play in the number three position. The next three slots on the team are dominated by freshmen. Tod Meringoff, who is the top-ranked player in the Northeast, joins Chung and Howard Kim to round out the top six.
"[The three freshmen] are very talented players who are picking up valuable experience as they go along," Fish said. "They're getting a shot at [the top players] a year ahead of time."
The coaches and players feel that the depth and balance of the team constitute its greatest strengths.
"We have a lot of depth," Assistant Coach Greg Russell said. "One indication of that was having our number-five player [Meringoff] win the Rolex Regional Championships [in February]."
A strong showing by all six players will be needed for Harvard to endure the team's tough spring schedule, highlighted by a murderous stretch of three conference games in four days, all on the road. The road trip will begin with a match at Navy on April 16. The team will then travel to the rolling hills of West Virginia to face the Mountaineers on April 18 and will return to civilization (if New Jersey can be called that) to face the Princeton Tigers.
That weekend, in a nutshell, will essentially decide the ECAC championship race.
"We designated ourselves as 'The Road Warriors' this year, because all our tough league matches [except Columbia] are on the road," Fish said. "We have to walk into the rowdy crowds with all our young guys and handle it."
The team will travel to California over spring break to face some intense competition in order to prepare them for ECAC play and beyond. (West Coast tennis is to East Coast tennis as Pete Sampras is to Ramesh Krishnan.)
"We're going to prove to ourselves how good a team we are," Meringoff said. "We're going to really come together as a team."
In California, the team will first face San Diego State and the University of San Diego in dual matches, then participate in the University of California-Irvine Tennis Classic.
"We'll put our record on the line and go after some tough nationally ranked teams," Fish said.
Besides facing harsh external challenges, the Crimson will be aiming to meet internal challenges as well.
The team has established a goal of "90 percent commitment"--that is, each player is aiming to attend 90 percent of the team's meetings, workouts, and practices, according to Russell. (So far, the team's commitment rate stands at about 85 percent.)
Reaching the ultimate goal will require a great amount of dedication, according to Russell.
"We're asking a lot from this group," Russell said. "If one guy can't make practice, they ask someone else to take their place so we can keep the [commitment level] at 90 percent," Russell said.
Such a high dedication level could result in some remarkable results for the Crimson. Because (though the Romans would disagree) team members believe that all roads lead to Athens--Athens, Georgia, that is, the site of this year's NCAA championships.