Doctor’s orders for a healthy season opening weekend: a barn burner against a ranked team that builds strength, followed by a solid win against a team that beat you last year shows a team is legitimate.
For the Harvard men’s tennis team, this weekend’s opponents—and the successful results—were just what the doctor ordered.
On Friday, the Crimson opened its dual-match season by defeating #38 William and Mary 4-3 in a match that came down to the final set between each team’s No. 1 singles player. On Saturday, Harvard showed that it is no fluke by controlling Purdue, 6-1, reversing the outcome of last year’s match.
Both matches, held at Harvard’s Murr center, were valuable learning experiences for Harvard—William and Mary taught the squad how to come back from any early deficity, Purde how to put away a match emphatically.
“We’re definitely inspired this year,” junior co-captain Chris Clayton said.
HARVARD 6, PURDUE 1
Learning its lesson from having to dig out of an early ditch on Friday, Harvard opened its match against the Boilermakers determined not to let it come down to the final set.
That almost didn’t happen, though, as the crucial doubles point hung in balance after the No. 2 pair of co-captain Dan Nguyen and freshman Aba Omodele-Lucien won their match 8-6 while the No. 3 pair Clayton and freshman Alexei Chijoff-Evans dropped their match 8-3. The Crimson’s No. 1 pair, senior Ashwin Kumar and junior Sasha Ermakov found themselves in a protracted back-and-forth series of deuces at 6-6 in the eight-game pro set.
Kumar, returning serve from the deuce side, capitalized on a let off the racket of hard-serving Slavko Bijelica that bounced high into the air. He powered a backhand return winner, giving Harvard the break point, which Ermakov sealed with a powerful down-the-line backhand. Ermakov then held serve with two aces to give the pair an 8-6 win and earn Harvard the doubles point.
The rest of the match seemed easy for the Crimson, especially for Kumar at No. 2, who breezed to a 6-4, 6-2 win in less than an hour. Kumar showed his back troubles were gone, running his opponent back and forth at will, finishing points with a combination of devastating groundstrokes and finessed dropshots.
“I just tried to be really aggressive,” Kumar said. “It was nice to be the first one off the court.”
The next Harvard player to win was No. 6 freshman Will Guzick, who showcased his strong forehand and steady composure in a 6-4, 6-4 victory.
“Will has a big forehand and he’s been hitting it well,” Nguyen said. “He’s been coming into his own in the past two dual matches.”
Ermakov clinched the Crimson’s victory at No. 3 with a 6-3, 6-4 win in which he overcame a frustrating spate of early unforced errors and a frustratingly vocal opponent.
Clayton and Omodele-Lucien each finished their matches with 10-point supertiebreakers after splitting their first two sets. Omodele-Lucien—who looked to be out of contention down after losing the first set 6-3—sprang back to life with fist-pumping vigor, winning the second set 6-4 and then taking the supertiebreaker, 10-8. Clayton, after winning the first set 6-4, seemed ready to win the match, up a break at 4-3 in the second, but was broken back and eventually lost the set 6-4.
“I lucked out a little in the tiebreak,” Clayton said of his opponent’s inability to hold a match point in the tiebreak. Clayton eventually won, 12-10.
Nguyen, who by his own admission “couldn’t find the court,” suffered Harvard’s only loss, 6-2, 6-2.
HARVARD 4, WILLIAM AND MARY 3
The William and Mary match came down to the wire.
“In my four years we’ve been in a ton of close matches, and I think this is the first one we actually won,” Nguyen said.
Tied at 3-3, the outcome of the match came down to a third set between each team’s No. 1. Clayton was up, 5-4, serving for the dual match, and failed to convert four match points, and was eventually broken. He broke back, and then held serve to clinch an impressive victory for the Crimson.
The victory was more impressive because of how forcefully William and Mary came out of the gates.
“They just came out with a ton of energy, they were very loud, very intense,” Nguyen said.
“We came out a little tired, a little slow,” he added.
The Tribe won the doubles by sweeping all three matches, with the only challenge being Kumar and Ermakov’s 9-8 loss at No. 1.
William and Mary seemed to have the momentum to steamroll Harvard, winning four of the first six singles sets, but the Crimson held tough. At No. 3, Ermakov lost in straight sets at No. 3 to put the Crimson down, 2-0, but Kumar (No. 2) pulled through a 1-6 first-set loss to win his next two, 6-3, 6-4 and put Harvard on the scoreboard. No. 6 Guzick equalized the score at 2-2 with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 win.
“He’s been grinding it out,” Clayton said of Guzick, “that is great to see for a freshman.”
A 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 Nguyen win at No. 4 followed quickly by a 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 loss at No. 5 by Omodele-Lucien set the stage for Clayton’s dramatic victory.
—Staff writer Jonathan B. Steinman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.