The weather was shaky, but the Harvard men’s tennis team was not.
The No. 48 Crimson (12-6, 4-0 Ivy) held together through a number of fierce challenges from visiting and heavily-injured Princeton (9-9, 1-4 Ivy) and a torrential downpour mid-match that forced a change of venue to beat the Tigers 6-1 on Saturday.
In a match where all of Harvard’s players fought to clear significant hurdles, it was freshman Aba Omodele-Lucien who had the hardest hurdle to clear—a mental one. Playing at No. 5, Omodele-Lucien faced an almost unceasing barrage of boisterous cheering from a number of Princeton players, which made a home match seem as though it was being held on enemy territory.
“I didn’t expect them to come out and blatantly cheer against me like that,” Omodele-Lucien said. “As they did it, I came to realize that this is an Ivy League match, all friendships are put aside, I just focused on the match and did a little heckling of my own to put myself on a level playing field.”
Throughout Omodele-Lucien’s first set, every missed opportunity on his part was immediately followed by cheers such as “we see you FAUST!” or “you’re too strong for him, FAUST!” from the Princeton cheering section. The cheering forced Omodele-Lucien into a battle of wits that seemed more aimed against the fans than his opponent, Princeton freshman Alex Faust.
When Omodele-Lucien was broken at 3-3 in the first set, he heard a hail of cheering for his opponent, so when he broke right back to equalize the set 4-4 after a protracted string of deuces, he formed his own impromptu cheering section, pumped his fists, and looked coldly at the crowd. After winning the next two games to take the first set, Omodele-Lucien made a gesture to the crowd indicating, “cut the music.” Omodele-Lucien got down a break in the second set before mustering the energy to take home the win. He broke his opponent twice in the second set to win 6-4, 6-3 and take home the Crimson’s clinching fourth win.
“Aba handled [the crowd] really well,” fellow freshman Alexei Chijoff-Evans said. “I’m just glad I didn’t play the guy he did. Faust makes a ton of balls.”
Though the crowd was less of a factor elsewhere, Harvard players brushed shoulders with frustration before carrying the day.
At No. 4, junior Sasha Ermakov seemed to be in for an easy match, taking the first set 6-1 with groundstrokes that pushed his opponent further and further onto the defensive until he broke. But after an injury timeout in which junior Alex Vucovic stretched his back, Ermakov went down 3-5 in the second set and seemed shaken off his game. But he regrouped, returning to his aggressive groundstrokes in time to assure victory before the skies burst forth.
After a half-hour delay and a relocation from the outdoor Beren Tennis Center to the enclosed Murr Tennis Center, Ermakov needed only a few more points to carry home a 6-1, 7-5 victory.
No. 3 co-captain Dan Nguyen won his first set with relative ease, but eased up just enough in the second set to allow his opponent to force a tiebreaker. In the tiebreaker, Nguyen found himself, jumping out to a 5-1 lead, and sealed the match, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), with a tightly angled forehand approach shot.
At No. 2, junior co-captain Chris Clayton made his way back from down a break in the first set to win the set 7-5 and then methodically pulled through the second set 6-4.
“I just slowed it down, got my rhythm back, and just played solid tennis,” Clayton said. “Making first serves, making returns is what won me the match.”
The Crimson’s only loss came at No. 1, where senior Ashwin Kumar turned what looked like it was going to be a slaughter into a match that ended with a dizzying super-tiebreaker.
“He was running around on the baseline, [and] that’s not anything close to his game,” Harvard coach Dave Fish ’72 said of Kumar’s listless 6-1 first set loss. “He’s so dangerous when he starts taking forehands and putting away vollies.”
But in the second set, Kumar unleashed the game that he is known and feared for, punching shots to all points on the court with ease and pinpoint precision and then knocking his opponent. Kumar won the second set 7-5, but fell in a tit-for-tat supertiebreaker 15-17.
At No. 6, Chijoff-Evans was the only Harvard player to have an easy day, winning 6-2, 6-2 over Mark Gober.
“[Gober] plays a game which I really like, as a serve and volleyer,” Chijoff-Evans said. “I was able to stay aggressive and pass him a number of times.”
In doubles, No. 33 Kumar and Ermakov continued their untouchable play, taking their ninth straight victory 8-5 at the first position. Nguyen and Omodele-Lucien lost 8-6 at No. 3, and sophomore Michael Hayes and Chijoff-Evans won 8-6 at No. 2 to give the Crimson the doubles point.
Harvard continues its march toward the Ivy League championship against Yale on Friday.
—Staff writer Jonathan B. Steinman can be reached at email@example.com.