n tennis, a game of inches and tiny angles, there are few venue changes more drastic or more game-altering than moving from indoor to outdoor courts. Thus, the Harvard men’s tennis team (5-4) knew it faced a challenge when it stepped onto the courts of No. 60 Clemson under sunny skies yesterday. But the 48th-ranked Crimson, eager to bounce back after two consecutive losses in the last week, dug in and overcame the challenge, beating the Tigers 4-3 thanks to gutsy performances by two freshmen at the bottom of its lineup.
“Going outdoors, you can spot a team 20 ranking places, so this is a really good win for us,” said head coach Dave Fish ’72. The slower outdoor surfaces deprived Harvard of many of the easy putaways it is accustomed to and placed a premium on fitness.
“To go outdoors against a team that prides itself on really being able to grind you down is huge,” Fish said. “This is one of those matches where I’m grateful to get three singles wins.”
Though it handily carried the doubles point by winning two out of three matches, the Crimson was clearly still adjusting in the opening sets of its singles matches, as was evident from the results of those sets: only one firm win—off the red hot racket of No. 2 senior Ashwin Kumar—and another win, by No. 5 freshman Aba Omodele-Lucien, that required a heroic comeback in the tiebreaker.
Down 2-5 in the tiebreaker, Omodele-Lucien changed his strategy.
“I just decided to focus on hitting out,” said Omodele-lucien, using the term tennis players use for focusing on fundamental play. “I didn’t focus on the score, just on playing the right way.”
And play the right way he did, unleashing powerful forehands and climbing back to 5-5. At this decisive point, Omodele-Lucien controlled a long rally by running his opponent side to side with hard forehands and eventually put the piont away with an overhead smash.
Omodele-Lucien won the set on the next point and ran away with the next set, giving him a 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory in the decisive match.
“If there was a highlight of the day, it was the way Aba finished off his singles match,” Kumar said. “He just stayed calm, stayed really poised. I was very impressed.”
Omodele-Lucien’s classmate, No. 6 Alexei Chijoff-Evans also showed his grit with an impressive 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 win, grabbing hold of the match after regaining his feel for outdoor play.
“I knew that eventually I could get [my play going], it was just a matter of when and how well I adjusted,” Chijoff-Evans said. “I really attacked too aggressively in the first set.”
For Harvard, which has relied on wins at the top of the lineup for most of the season, the wins at No. 5 and No. 6 could not have come at a better time.
While Kumar, whose dazzling skills have come to the fore in recent matches, won his match yesterday 6-2, 6-2 (much to his opponent’s despair), the rest of the top four struggled.
No. 1 junior co-captain Chris Clayton got a dose of what is usually his own medicine, losing 6-3, 6-0 in a match that featured so many long rallies that even he was worn out.
“They were playing horrendously long points, going 18-20 shots routinely,” Fish said. “He usually does that to other people, he knows he has to get back to drilling.”
The slower outdoor surfaces hurt Clayton’s ability to wield the put-away shots that have become almost as important a fixture in his game as his seemingly endless energy.
No. 4 co-captain Dan Nguyen lost 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 in a match where he showed the most positive signs yet of overcoming his recent tendency to play too conservatively.
“Dan’s really starting to pull the trigger on his big shots,” Fish said.
Nguyen’s ability to play aggressively and consistently will prove crucial as the Crimson moves toward the Ivy season, where they will face fierce competition up and down the lineup.
At No. 3, junior Sasha Ermakov struggled for the third straight match, losing 6-2, 6-0.
—Staff writer Jonathan B. Steinman can be reached at email@example.com.