To anyone else, such a tough draw might seem intimidating, but for the Crimson it’s familiar territory.
A glance at the NCAA men’s tennis tournament bracket shows No. 51 Harvard (15-6, 7-0 Ivy League) in a precarious position: the Crimson face 17th-ranked Texas Tech, likely followed by No. 16 Michigan, all for the dubious right to play the top-ranked Mountaineers of Virginia in the round of 16.
Still, considering that the team was unsure until Tuesday afternoon whether it would receive a third or fourth seed, the players are thrilled.
“We’re the lowest-ranked third seed, but we’re certainly happy,” says junior Chris Clayton. “It gives us a much better shot.”
Backed by a résumé that includes its first undefeated Ivy League season since 2004, Harvard knew it had an automatic bid to the tournament. But the higher seeding proves key as it guarantees that the Crimson will avoid the country’s elite programs in the first round.
“Our team’s got a lot of ability,” Harvard coach Dave Fish ’72 explains. “But realistically, we’re more in it if we play a 17-32 [ranked team] than a 1-16.”
Indeed, the Crimson will bring high hopes into the first round when it travels to Ann Arbor, Mich. on May 9. Due to some insightful early season scheduling, the squad has already faced the toughest competition possible.
“We’ve seen the best guys in the country,” Fish adds, referring to Harvard’s nine matches against ranked opponents, including Michigan and Virginia, before starting its league season. “The intimidation factor isn’t there.”
Although a difficult schedule will always leave its marks—the Crimson dropped hard-fought matches against the Wolverines and Mountaineers, 5-2 and 6-1 respectively—Clayton saw tremendous benefits in the challenge.
“The schedule definitely had a lot to do with [our success],” he says. “We had some ranked wins in there and, more importantly, there really weren’t any bad losses.”
While Harvard’s ample experience and first tournament bid since 2004 are plenty of cause for excitement, the players and coaches realize that an uphill battle looms. Fish notes that the favored Red Raiders (19-5, 4-3 Big 12)—led by Big 12 Coach of the Year Tim Siegel—will give the Crimson all it can handle.
“The [Texas Tech] program has really come up,” Fish says. “They win a lot of doubles points, which gives the team a lot of confidence.”
Not only do the Red Raiders boast strong doubles, led by the 13th-ranked pair of senior Bojan Szumanski and junior Christian Rojmar, but their singles play has also proved forceful, helping the squad to a second place tie in the Big 12 and a national top 30 finish for the seventh time in 14 years.
No. 33 Szumanski and 119th-ranked Sinisa Markovic both earned All-Conference honors in singles and pose a difficult challenge for Harvard’s top two players, No. 112 Clayton and senior captain Ashwin Kumar.
Still, Kumar, an All-American doubles player who teams with junior Sasha Ermakov as the 34th-ranked pair, draws on his past experience for confidence.
“Having a chance to play some of the best players in the country really prepared us,” the captain explains. “Once you’re used to that level of competition, it becomes second nature.”
In addition to the optimism of his players, Fish brings a seasoned swagger to Ann Arbor. The winningest coach in Harvard history has led his squads to an impressive 12 victories in tournament matches. Considering that no member of the team has competed in the NCAA team tournament, Fish has endowed his squad with crucial perspective.
“When you know the ropes, you know what’s a big deal and what isn’t,” the coach reflects. “It’s like having your first child, you learn not to worry about every little thing.”
As an underdog Harvard enters the tournament, perhaps the most important goal for players and coaches is just to enjoy the opportunity.
“There’s excitement in general, regardless of the seeding,” Kumar says.
With a prepared squad and a battle-tested coach, the road ahead doesn’t seem to matter. The Crimson has a chance to add some quality victories to an already memorable experience.