The last time the Harvard men’s tennis team went more than two consecutive seasons without winning the Ivy League title was 1980.
The 2007 Crimson showed that it is prepared to leave that dubious distinction to the 1980 squad and retake the Ivy League championship with a brilliant first performance of the spring tennis season at the Columbia Classic last weekend.
The eight Harvard players at the tournament amassed a 16-8 collective record, with three—junior co-captain Chris Clayton, senior Ashwin Kumar, and junior Sasha Ermakov—reaching the semifinals of the 16 player A-singles main draw. Clayton won the A singles draw, outlasting his leg-weary teammate and roommate Ermakov 6-3, 6-3.
“This was a very promising start for us,” coach Dave Fish ’72 said. Despite the long layoff, he added that “we felt the guys were hitting the ball well.”
Clayton—whose strength at the No. 1 position of the Crimson’s lineup will be crucial if Harvard is to fulfill its high hopes for the season—had the physical edge because he had advanced to the finals without hitting a single ball, as Kumar who was to be his opponent, withdrew to avoid aggravating a sore shoulder. Ermakov had played a total of seven grueling sets the previous day.
Ermakov’s exhaustion notwithstanding, Clayton’s play benefited from new-found aggressiveness. Clayton’s defensive play had worn down opponents in the past, but only after marathon rallies. Now he goes for the kill earlier.
“His serve, particularly his second serve, was much more attackable,” Ermakov said, “but now he’s spinning it pretty hard and it’s much harder to attack. Chris is taking [the ball] much earlier and putting pressure on you from the get go.”
As for Ermakov, he is in his finest form since returning from an ankle injury that kept him inactive for much of the early part of last season.
“Sasha’s play was quite distinguished,” Fish said of Ermakov’s journey to the final. “He’s playing at a higher notch than he’s been able to sustain before. The semifinal he played was just sharp, sharp tennis. The [opponent] was firing bullets and Sasha just stayed in there toe to toe with him.”
In that semifinal match—Ermakov’s second three-setter on a day in which he also played a lengthy doubles pro-set—he beat Columbia sophomore Jon Wong by a score of 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. Even before beating Crimson co-captain Dan Nguyen in three sets in the quarterfinal, Wong was a thorn in Harvard’s side. Last year he defeated then co-captain Scott Denenbergy in a two-tiebreak three-setter, but this season he could not defeat Ermakov’s relentless tenacity.
Kumar played himself into the semifinals through mounting pain in his back. In the opening round he handily defeated Yale’s No. 1 player, Mike Caldwell, who had defeated him the previous year. He then won the quarterfinal 6-4, 6-2 even though he had been considering withdrawing because of his sore back.
“I was anxious to go out there and compete,” Kumar said. “I won because I was able to dictate play with my serve.”
Harvard’s other A-singles entry, Nguyen, won his opening-round match easily before losing to Columbia’s Wong in three sets 7-5, 3-6, 6-0.
Junior Michael Kalfayan made it to the semifinals of the B-singles draw, playing a tenacious back-court game that allowed him to power past four-year Yale starter Rory Green 6-4, 6-4 in the quarterfinals.
Freshman Aba Omodele-Lucien won his first match in the B-draw 6-4, 6-2 before falling to the eventual runner-up. Fellow freshman Will Guzick lost to the eventual B draw champion in the first round, and after winning one match in the consolation draw, lost to that bracket’s eventual champion.
Harvard’s lone entrant in the C-singles draw, freshman Tim Wu, made it to the semifinals with what Fish called “heads-up play.”
Kumar and Ermakov made it to the finals of the doubles draw before Kumar’s sore back forced the pair to withdraw.
—Staff writer Jonathan B. Steinman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.