The Harvard men had never beaten Stanford, one of the most venerable Division I tennis programs, boasting 17 NCAA championships since 1973. Though the Cardinal has been struggling this year, the Crimson was excited to rise to the challenge from the opening serve.
A reworked doubles lineup featuring some new faces and some experienced duos played assertively against taller, physically imposing Stanford pairs, taking two out of three matches to secure the doubles point. At No. 3, the reunited pair of senior co-captains Gideon Valkin and Scott Denenberg won, 8-4, while at No. 2, juniors Dan Nguyen and Kieran Burke fell, 8-4.
At No. 1, sophomore Sasha Ermakov played masterfully with Ashwin Kumar, as the pair repeatedly confounded their opponents by turning balls that looked like excellent passing shots into deceptive, sharply angled drop volleys.
“Because Ashwin volleys so well, they kept ripping shots at Sasha,” said Harvard coach Dave Fish ’72. “He did a marvelous job of returning tough balls; he was awake and alert.”
Ermakov missed the beginning of the spring season because of loose cartilage in his ankle. He practiced as hard as possible given his injury—hitting while seated, maintaining his strength—and would have been ready to play against No. 3 Virginia 12 days earlier but contracted pneumonia.
In his second match back—his first was a two-win effort against Pacific—Ermakov seemed to be enjoying every second on the court.
“Sasha’s a hard out in the lineup,” said Fish, using baseball terminology jokingly after the match.
Ermakov took his singles match at No. 6 by a score of 6-2, 6-2. He and Kumar—who won at No. 3, 6-2, 6-2—carried their momentum from their earlier doubles match, winning very quickly and bringing Harvard to the edge of victory.
Gideon Valkin clinched that victory at the No. 5 position, 6-2, 6-3, holding off an impassioned late run by his opponent with his trademark shot, running around his backhand to blast powerful but controlled forehands.
During his match, he and Chris Clayton—who lost 6-1, 6-0—bantered with each other from opposite sides of a grandstand, their tone in line with the jovial atmosphere of the day for Harvard.
“It feels great for the team to be rewarded,” Valkin said, referring to the early-season struggles with injuries.
After the victory was clinched, Denenberg ran out of the momentum he had built initially, losing in a supertiebreak at No. 4 after winning the first set, 6-3, and losing the second, 6-4.
No. 3 Dan Nguyen won, 7-6, 6-2, staying true to his tradition of playing some of the Crimson’s longest matches.
After the match, the players joked around with each other, clearly enjoying the sun and what Clayton called the “unprecedented moment in Harvard tennis history.”
Commenting on the team’s preparation for the its first outdoor match since last fall, Clayton continued joking, “within minutes, the shirts are off, the sunblock’s on, and we’re burning up the courts. We shake and bake.”
HARVARD 6, PACIFIC 1
The Crimson’s first scheduled outdoor match was moved inside due to heavy rain on Monday, but Harvard took the change in stride, pummeling the Tigers, 6-1.
The match was notable mostly for the return of Ermakov to the lineup.
“Other than Ashwin’s loss, it was really straightforward, wonderful tennis,” Fish said.
The Crimson won in straight sets at five singles spots, with only Kumar losing at No. 3 in three sets, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-4.
The Crimson doubles teams swept, with Kumar and Ermakov winning, 8-4, at No. 1, Nguyen and Burke winning, 8-6, and Valkin and Denenberg winning, 8-3.
—Staff writer Jonathan B. Steinman can be reached at email@example.com.