In the locker room, his teammates call him “The Colonel.”
But given the way the Harvard men’s tennis team’s energetic junior co-captain Chris Clayton has been playing this week, he might soon be promoted to general.
Anchoring the No. 1 spot in the lineup, Clayton has led his team’s charge to a 2-0 record in the young spring dual match season, taking home two strong singles victories over tough opponents in last weekend’s Crimson wins against then-No. 38 William and Mary and Purdue.
Clayton’s hair-raising 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 win on Friday against William and Mary was the fourth and decisive point in Harvard’s 4-3 upset victory and showed that he had raised the level of his game, turning himself from a pesky defensive opponent into a fearsome attacker from any point on the court.
After splitting two sets against Alex Cojanu, an opponent who had improved vastly since Clayton disposed of him easily in youth tennis, the “third set was heart,” Assistant Coach Andrew Rueb ’95 said. Up 5-4, and returning serve, Clayton played his way to match point, when his opponent caught fire.
“For a while, [Cojanu] was just unstoppable,” Rueb said. “It was just brutal the way it unfolded.”
But for Clayton, no stranger to marathon matches, this was a time to fight through frustration. Clayton failed to convert four match points, but didn’t let his concentration lapse.
“My mentality was to be as professional as possible even though there was a lot of pressure at the time,” Clayton said, “I stayed focused on the task, and I came through.”
He held his next serve, then, up 6-5, with the score 30-all, Clayton unleashed a passing shot that vaulted him into the win column.
“You can’t rally against him like you used to,” Clayton’s roommate and teammate, junior Sasha Ermakov, said. “He’ll jump all over a short ball.”
In years past, Clayton was known as a stalwart defender, capable of getting any shot back over the net and extending rallies into painful long-distance sprints for his opponents. But this tendency came at the price of hiding Clayton’s strong underlying game.
According to Rueb, when Harvard tennis great James Blake ’01 saw Clayton playing as a freshman, he was impressed but told him he had to step up and attack short balls.
“He had a tendency to step back and allow his legs to bail him out,” Rueb said.
But that tendency has been erased, and this year, Clayton’s shots are noticeably more powerful. Though he still has more long rallies than most of his peers, Clayton seems able—and eager—to end them emphatically when the first opportunity presents itself, often with a hard-spinning groundstroke to a corner.
In his win on Saturday against Purdue’s Branko Kuzmanovic, who had given him fits last year, Clayton had Kuzmanovic bouncing back and forth across the baseline and skidding exasperatedly after successively wider and harder shots.
“It’s tough when you look across the net, and Chris is always, always, always running,” Rueb said. But now, he doesn’t always have to.
Clayton’s serve has also improved noticeably this year, forcing his opponents deeper into the corners, and into defensive play from the start.
The final aspect of Clayton’s stronger play this year is his increased comfort and skill at the net, where he was rarely found in years past. Clayton’s volleying ability now allows him to put away a point from any location on the court.
“This is a strong team from No.1 through No. 6,” Rueb said, “but it’s great to have a player like Chris at No.1 who’s taking it to these top players in the country and getting wins for us.”
Consider him ready for promotion.
—Staff writer Jonathan B. Steinman can be reached at email@example.com.