The women's tennis team used to be the best in the East. Now, its future isn't nearly as bright and players are...
The Harvard women's tennis team has defined the word "dynasty" on the East Coast: winners of nine of the last 10 Ivy League titles, the Crimson has not been ranked lower than fifth in the East for the last 10 years.
But this year is different. Harvard is ranked an unprecedented 15th in the East and has already stumbled over previously beatable opponents in the fall.
The formula is fairly simple: injuries, the departure of eight key players (most of them seniors) and a growing discontent with third-year Head Coach Gordon Graham.
"Gordon's a very nice person," junior Co-Captain Melissa McNabb said. "But you've got to question his coaching ability."
Since Graham took over the helm in 1991, a series of increasingly disasterous events has befallen the team, incidents which have gone hand-in-hand with the team's decline.
The first sign of trouble occured in April 1991, when Harvard was on the brink of winning a ninth consecutive Ivy championship.
In a late-season match against Brown, Graham substituted number-seven player senior Rachel Pollock into the lineup as a replacement for number-five Jenn Minkus '92, who had a pulled muscle in her calf.
Because number-six senior Erika Elmuts had already started her match when Graham made the decision to rest Minkus, Pollock had to jump two positions to play number-five.
Rules state that once a player starts a match, she must play it out to the very end. Under normal circumstances, Elmuts would have moved up one position from number-six to number-five and Pollock would move to number-six.
Brown Coach Norma Taylor accused Graham of purposefully starting the Elmuts match, then inserting Pollack in Minkus' slot in an effort to stack Harvard's line-up.
Harvard won the match, 5-4, but the Committee of Ivy League Coaches agreed with Taylor's protest and reversed the outcome, giving Brown the victory and costing Harvard the Ivy title.
"Everyone on the team was pretty upset," McNabb said. "He didn't do it intentionally...although he didn't feel he screwed up."
Graham was quoted after the match as saying that because of the protest. "There is going to be bad blood between [Harvard and Brown]."
Despite winning the Ivy title in 1992 behind the powerful play of Erika deLone '95, the exodus of players started in earnest that spring.
Junior Samantha Ettus, Harvard's number-two player, left right before the team's California trip. Senior Melinda Wang also chose not to continue playing later that spring.
"My quitting shocked a lot of people," Ettus said. "But I figured that if I was no longer psyched to be going out there and playing, it wasn't worth it anymore."
When deLone announced after the season that she would turn professional, the floodgates opened. Seniors Heather Chulock, Elmuts, Pollock, Jennifer Yu and sophomore Karen Todd all quit the team.
Graham attributed the rush of departures to "extracurricular attrition."
"You see a fair amount of attrition in any extracurricular event," Graham said. "People play because they like to play. There's no scholarship holding them to it."
But other players did not share Graham's reasoning behind the players' departures.
"Melinda quit because of pre-med stuff," McNabb said. "Heather and Samantha just didn't enjoy playing anymore."
Graham's view of academic priorities has also been cited as a cause of discontent within the team and a reason for the loss of players like Wang.
"[Graham] doesn't allow us to study between matches at a tournament," junior Mary Park said. "Sometimes we have three or four hours between matches and we can't study at all, but have to root for our teammates. It's hard when you're doing science and you've got problem sets due."
Graham countered that the study policy was a team decision.
"That was a decision reached by the team," Graham said.
According to Park, Graham relaxed the policy after a team meeting in late February, but only for individual tournaments. The 'no-studying' rule still applies at team tournaments, she said.
"That doesn't affect us at all," Park said. "There are no individual tournaments left on the schedule. I don't see what the big deal is about letting us study at tournaments."
Park wound up adhering to the policy and staying on the team, but at the cost of a possible year's delay before applying to med school.
"Because of the commitments, I was forced to drop Physics 11a and I can't take the MCAT's this April," Park said.
Apart from the players that have left, those that have stayed have been irritated by minor glitches in the program.
"Last year he forgot to remind us about an upcoming match [against Boston University]," Park said. "He wound up calling us all the day of the match and telling us to grab our rackets and run over to the courts so we wouldn't miss the game."
This year, the spring season began with a bitter aftertaste. A 6-1 trouncing of Providence came under scrutiny because the match was played under the men's format (which reduces the importance of the doubles contests in the final point totals) due to lack of court time at the Palmer-Dixon Indoor Tennis Courts.
David Benjamin, the president of the Intercolleigate Tennis Association, told The Crimson last night that the match would count in the standings, but McNabb still questioned why that format was necessary.
"It was ridiculous that we had to play like that," McNabb said. "It was Graham's fault for not setting it up right."
Graham defended his actions, saying he set the match up on short notice and the time at the facility had already been contracted out.
"We had used up our team allotments of dates," Graham said. "I felt it was important for the team to get in an extra match and I thought that a shortened match would be better than no match."
The Long Road Back
Several players said they had no problem with Graham.
Graham has recently responded to team wishes for more strenuous and regimented program, and has opened more lines of communication to his players, team members say.
Graham himself sounds upbeat about the upcoming season.
"There are a lot of positives that have happened," Graham said. "We have a very exciting season ahead of us and I feel that we can win the Ivy title again. It we can do that after all the dissonance of the early season, that will be great."
Other opinions exist, however.
"No one wants to come to practice," Park said. "Nobody wants to recover from their injuries. They feel like it's time away from Graham."
Several players have gone to Associate Athletic Director Patricia Henry to air their complaints about Graham.
Some, including McNabb, have gone as far as to say that it would take a new coach for the team to achieve the success it once enjoyed. Neither Henry nor Athletic Director Bill Cleary '56 returned phone calls yesterday.
Graham remains undaunted, however. "I feel that I can do the job and that we can do the job with the people we've got. We've just got some problems that we have to work out as a team.
"I haven't achieved all my goals here. Besides winning an Ivy and being number one in the East, I'd like to improve as a coach and try and build a program that the girls enjoy playing for. That hasn't been the case in the last ten years and I want to see if I can achieve that," Graham said.