M. Tennis Faces Georgia in NCAA Sweet 16
13-seed Crimson play Bulldogs on their home courts
The fate of the Harvard men's tennis team was decided in one meeting.
In a room full of the country's regional directors, Harvard Coach Dave Fish '72 was asked his team's chances this weekend at the NCAA Round of 16 Tournament. He had to answer honestly. Tom Blake was still questionable and even if the Crimson captain did play, he wouldn't be at 100 percent.
In that one moment of honesty, Harvard's hope of nabbing a 12th seed fell by the wayside, replaced by the daunting challenge of being the No. 13 team in the draw.
It may only be one spot, but instead of matching up against the more palatable Illinois team, Harvard is now looking directly in the face of the third-best team in the country, Georgia.
"If you started with a coaching plan at the beginning of the year, everything went perfectly for us except for Thomas getting hurt," said Fish, whose team will face the additional burden of playing on Georgia's home courts in Athens. "As a regional representative you have to keep some credibility and by pretending that Thomas is perfect is not the way we do things. If Thomas had not gotten hurt we would have been the 12th seed and it would have been a whole different story."
Blake, who has been hampered by a hamstring injury, participated in some informal play yesterday afternoon, but the decision as to whether or not the two-time All-American will take the courts this afternoon will come down to the last possible minute.
"I'll have to make a decision at some point [today]. We'll all give our input, but I won't make a decision that Thomas doesn't agree with," Fish said. "We don't want to put him out for a couple of months by playing him here. Even if he is a go, we're not certain where [in the lineup] and how much he will be able to play."
Amidst all the questions surrounding Blake's status, there are still six players who are trying to concentrate on the task at hand, with or without their captain.
"It has definitely been a disruption not knowing whether he will play doubles, singles or not all," said sophomore John Doran. "Everyone just has to practice and pretend that they are getting ready to play no matter what happens with Tom. If he is ready then all the better, but if not we'll have to do the best that we can without him."
Freshman James Blake will once again play in the No. 1 singles spot in place of his older brother, regardless of the match time decision. In last weekend's Regional Tournament in Princeton, Blake easily disposed of Virginia Tech's Aaron Marchetti--the No. 17 player in the country--6-0, 6-2 in the championship match. Blake, along with his doubles partner, captain Kunj Majmudar, added a straight-set doubles win en route to the Crimson's 4-3 victory.
The drama of the tournament, however, was supplied by an unlikely source, Scott Clark. With the score knotted a 3-2, the fate of the match was in the freshman's hands in the No. 5 singles slot. Storming from behind, Clark knocked off Mark Tempes 6-7 (1), 6-4, 6-1 to capture the regional title and the team's Round of 16 berth.
"I haven't thought about it too much. I've had too many exams to deal with," said Clark, who took a final yesterday morning in Athens and will be forced to take another before today's match. "I was excited and lucky that it was the match that ended the tournament."
Unfortunately for the Crimson, the experienced Georgia squad will be a much different opponent than the Techsters. Compared to Harvard's eight appearances, the Bulldogs have reached the NCAAs 19 times and have claimed two national titles.
The Crimson is no stranger to top seeds--just beating them. Last season, Harvard was pitted against eventual national champion Stanford and lost decisively, 0-4. The year before it was Mississippi State and the result was a similarly dismal 1-4 rout. This time around, the question remains as to whether Harvard--even without the services of Tom Blake--can pull out the upset and reach the round of the elite eight for the first time in the program's history.
"[Georgia] has been here a lot of times and their team has traditionally always been in the top four, but none of their players are at a level that is unbeatable," Fish said. "They are very good and they have a lot of depth and a lot of juniors who our players have played against through the years."
The two overriding factors in the equation that make the road to history-making even more formidable for the team, however, is that of time and place.
Not only is the Crimson matched up against Georgia in front of the Bulldogs' home crowd--which often numbers into the thousands--the Harvard players are also finishing up their final exam period. Many of the players returned to Cambridge from Princeton last weekend just in time for the first week of testing only to depart for Athens on Wednesday.
"We are sort of keeping our fingers crossed because of the fatigue levels of the guys coming out of exams," Fish said. "In a perfect world this wouldn't happen. And by playing here, if you were a betting person making a friendly wager, the conditions would definitely favor Georgia."
"Coach has stressed how substantial the crowd will be and how much they appreciate their tennis down here," Doran added. "We just need to concentrate on taking on the opponents rather than taking on the crowd. If we don't get involved with them, then they won't intimidate us."
The first match begins at 2 p.m. this afternoon.
The only question remaining for Fish and his team is whether Tom Blake will be taking in the action from the bench or the court.