After freshman No. 4 Eva Wang took the final point of the Harvard women’s tennis team’s 6-1 Ivy clinching-victory over Penn on Saturday, she was mobbed by her teammates in front of a roaring crowd at the Beren Tennis Center. The hugging was all the more cathartic for the Crimson given the seeming improbability of Harvard’s undefeated day at singles just an hour before.
No. 39 Penn (15-5, 6-1 Ivy), winner of 22 straight Ivy matches entering Saturday, put the Crimson’s back against the wall by winning the doubles point and three of six first sets in singles. When Wang fell behind 7-6, 5-0 and allowed a double match point to Penn’s Shelah Chao, the Quakers were on the verge of taking a commanding 2-0 lead in the dual match.
But Wang never let that second Penn point appear on the scoreboard. Instead Harvard (17-3, 7-0 Ivy) earned an inspirational victory from sophomore Courtney Bergman at No. 1 singles and the momentum spread to the other five courts. Harvard never looked back as the Crimson secured its first Ivy championship since 1999 and an automatic NCAA berth.
“There was great energy out here, not just from the players, but the fans,” said Harvard coach Gordon Graham. “This is a group of real fighters and they just weren’t going to give up.”
Bergman turned to court No. 2 following her match to cheer on sophomore Susanna Lingman’s comeback from a set down. When opponent Nicole Ptak’s final shot clipped the net and dropped wide, giving Lingman the 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory, Bergman rushed over and embraced her doubles partner. With a 2-1 lead, the momentum was back in the Crimson’s favor.
By the time freshman No. 6 Melissa Anderson claimed the third Harvard victory in three sets, the Crimson was in control on every court. Almost all attention turned to captain Sanja Bajin at No. 5, where she was on the verge of clinching not only the Ivy title on Senior Day, but also the only Harvard undefeated season at singles on record.
Bajin’s opponent, Caroline Stanislawski, did not let the championship point come on the first try. But on the final point, Bajin fired a passing shot on her backhand and Stanislawski was helpless to reach it. Soon after, the shirtless hordes in the stands resonated the message that was clear from the 4-1 tally on the scoreboard—“Ivy champs.”
After sophomore No. 3 Alexis Martire closed out her 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 win just moments after Bajin, all attention turned to Wang as she completed her improbable comeback.
Graham, replete with awe after the match, praised his team’s ability to bounce back after a flat showing in the doubles by winning four three-set matches en route to the singles sweep.
“In between the doubles [we said], ‘Everybody take care of their match and we can win all six matches,’ and yet it sure didn’t look like that was going to happen, did it?” Graham said. “The way the matches were going, I was [thinking] just give me four anyplace. [The comeback] is a real testament to this team. They continue to really impress me.”
Wang Looks to the Moon
Of the three Harvard losses in first sets yesterday, Wang’s 7-6 (14-12) defeat at No. 4 was the most harrowing. She led 6-3 in the tiebreak but squandered three set points. She fought off five set points from Chao before gaining another, which she also wasted before dropping the set.
“I was so mad that I just like didn’t even want to play any more—I just wanted to quit and retire or whatever,” Wang said. “I had so many set points but, I don’t know, I just couldn’t hit them. On the last one I just decided to go for it on her shot and it was a stupid shot.”
Wang’s attacking strategy in the second set utterly failed as Chao responded to her pace and went up 5-0. Wang then turned to a much simpler goal—stick it out as long as possible.
“I didn’t want my other teammates to see that I’ve already lost, because then it would be so much closer and so much more pressure for them,” Wang said. “We’d be down one hope.”
Wang started moonballing—lobbing her shots high into the air to waste time. To her surprise, she started winning. At the time, she recalled an Andre Agassi match where he pulled out a comeback after he started moonballing.
“I remember him winning because he started moonballing so I started doing that every point,” Wang said. “Obviously [Chao] didn’t like it and she kept missing so I did whatever it takes to win.”
Wang never lost another game that set and rolled to the 6-7 (12-14), 7-5, 6-1 victory.
“That was crazy, what can you say about that?” said Bergman, baffled by the comeback. “That’s just awesome of her. It shows such character.”
Although Wang’s match finished well after Harvard had clinched the title, her ability to evade defeat was crucial to the Crimson victory.
“It puts more pressure on us if Eva had lost right away but to see her start coming back, it helps a lot to know that she’s still fighting,” Bajin said.
“She did a great job of fighting and staying on the court,” Graham said.
Long after the match was completed, Wang was still on court No. 4 with two companions, relishing the moment and eliciting laughter from Graham.
“She just may sit there all night, I don’t know,” Graham said.
Bergman Starting at the Top
As the No. 1 singles player, Bergman is usually among the last to finish her match because she has the toughest matchup. On Saturday she was the first to finish against Alice Pirsu, and the quick 6-4, 6-1 victory could not have come at a better time.
On paper, Pirsu was the favorite as the nation’s No. 20 player, last year’s Ivy Player of the Year and winner of 14 of 16 matches this spring. Bergman was ranked No. 42 and had struggled this spring with six defeats in 15 matches. Pirsu’s sudden demise was crushing to the Quakers and uplifting to the Crimson across the other five courts.
“A couple other people were saying when they looked over and saw that I won, it gave them more energy and confidence,” Bergman said. “That’s awesome if it did that. I know it’s easier for me to play when I know how good our team is and how good the back of the lineup is.”
Bergman’s victory was all the more unlikely considering she had been struggling with stress fractures in her shins for the past few weeks. She said that the amazing tennis she played this weekend was not what she had expected.
Bergman won by doing what she does best—countering her opponent’s shots by hitting deep balls and then aggressively moving to the net.
“I started playing the way I needed to play tennis,” Bergman said. “I was keeping the ball deep and playing super aggressive today.”
Bajin’s Storybook Ending
With her 7-5, 6-3 victory at No. 5, Bajin finished 19-0 for the season in singles. But, although that feat was more unique historically, Bajin classified her first Ivy title as the greater achievement.
“It’s great that I finished undefeated and I won the clinching the match, but it was the team title we were all looking for,” Bajin said. “If I had to give up winning my match today to get the Ivy title I would have done it, but it’s great that this comes along with it.”
Given the opportunity, she wanted to win the Ivy championship point. Bajin was well aware as she fought to close out her match that Martire was a game away from winning hers.
“I knew when I was at match point that Alexis was almost done, and I wanted to win the clinching match,” Bajin said. “Maybe that’s what made me lose my focus a little. It took me a couple points.”
Penn’s No. 6 Sanela Kunovac, like Bajin, was her team’s No. 1 player two years ago. But unlike Bajin, she failed to bounce back from injuries a year ago to post a consistent season this year. Kunovac fell 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 to Harvard’s Anderson in what was a tough match to play mentally because it was slowed by Kunovac’s injury timeouts.
It’s Not Over Yet
Bajin said that although winning the Ivy title was the Crimson’s primary goal, the team has no intention of stopping there.
Harvard will play in the NCAA tournament on May 9 or May 10. The selection will be announced on April 30. Graham is hoping Harvard will be selected as one of the 16 teams to host a four-team regional. The Crimson, with wins over three top-25 teams this year, is also in the running to be one of the top regional seeds—and hence one of 16 national seeds.
The regional winners all advance to the 16-team NCAA Championships in Gainesville, Fl. Getting there will be Harvard’s next goal, but the team will wait until Wednesday to resume practicing for it. There are still two more days of celebration and relaxation left to come.
—Staff writer David R. De Remer can be reached at email@example.com.