The third-seeded Crimson (No. 51, 15-7, 7-0 Ivy) faced the toughest possible second seed in the tournament in the No. 17 Red Raiders (20-5 at the time, 20-6 after a loss Sunday to No. 16 Michigan) and gave them a run for their money.
“I think we caught [Texas Tech] off guard,” co-captian Dan Nguyen said. “I don’t know whether they thought that the No. 51 team could challenge them. We certainly didn’t make it easy for them.”
The match, which was cut short after the Red Raiders clinched with their fourth win, featured hard-fought battles up and down Harvard’s lineup. The Crimson’s only two wins came at No. 5 and 6, from freshmen Alexei Chijoff-Evans and Aba Omodele-Lucien, both of whom are now riding seven-match win streaks. Each freshman has lost only one set during that streak, which stretches back to their second Ivy League match against Columbia.
Harvard lost the doubles point, with the No. 2 duo of sophomore Michael Hayes and Chijoff-Evans losing 8-2 and the No. 3 pair of Nguyen and Omodele-Lucien falling 8-5. Senior Ashwin Kumar and junior Sasha Ermakov were up 6-4 when their match was cut short by the Red Raiders’ winning of two matches to seal the doubles point. The Crimson had grown accustomed to winning the doubles point in Ivy League play, and against challenging competition in the NCAA, losing it had a steep price, giving Harvard virtually no room for error and placing a premium on early wins to even the score.
Thankfully for the Crimson, Chijoff-Evans’ win was a fast 6-2, 6-2 trouncing—a lopsided outcome that is beginning to become a routine for the aggressive-playing freshman. He was the second singles player off the court.
The first off the court was Ermakov, who, playing at less than full strength because of an injury, lost 6-2, 6-2 at No. 4.
Next, at No. 1, Kumar lost 6-1, 6-4 in a match against Bojan Szumanski, who is ranked No. 33 nationally. Kumar’s is a game of inches and finesse, and at first his shots were missing by just enough to allow Szumanski to roll through the first set. Kumar got back into his groove in the second set, but not in time to carry home a win.
Down, 1-3, and with its back against the wall, Harvard turned its attention to Omodele-Lucien, who did not disappoint.
“Aba played a real big match,” coach Dave Fish ’72 said of Omodele-Lucien’s 6-2, 7-6 (5) win. “He’s beginning to show signs of his real potential.”
As the Crimson might have hoped, its fate was left in the hands of its co-captains.
Playing at No. 2, junior Chris Clayton came back from a 5-2 deficit in the first set to force a tiebreaker, which he lost 7-3.
At 4-4 in the second set, Clayton failed to convert three break points, and eventually lost the set 6-4, sealing Harvard’s defeat.
“I fought hard, but didn’t bring my best tennis out there,” Clayton said. “I wasn’t able to attack my forehand as much as I do, wasn’t able to do my inside-out forehand.”
The loss cut short Nguyen’s match at No. 4, though he was up 3-2 in the third set after splitting the first two sets 3-6, 6-3.
Though the loss marks the end of the season for the Crimson, Clayton, and the duo of Kumar and Ermakov earned spots in the singles and doubles brackets of the NCAA tournament, respectively, and will play on in the coming weeks.
“When you get to the next level, everybody’s tough, everybody’s in good shape, everybody will run forever,” Fish said of Clayton’s upcoming opponents. “There are certain points where it’s like you’re climbing a mountain and you have to jump over a crevice, and it’s dangerous and you’re nervous, but you’ve just got to step up and make your move. Chris has shown that capacity to step up and do it.”
—Staff writer Jonathan B. Steinman can be reached at email@example.com.