SEASON RECAP: Crimson Drops Bid to Reclaim Ivies

Coming into the 2008-09 campaign as the defending Ivy League champion, the Harvard men’s tennis team (13-9, 5-2 Ivy) was confident about its potential, but the season was far from easy for the Crimson rackets.

Harvard started off the year facing a number of top-30 teams—including No. 1 Georgia—in a series of diagnostic tests for the Crimson. Harvard struggled against the top-notch competition, although No. 69 Chris Clayton, the Crimson co-captain, provided one bright spot, beating No. 12 Nate Schnugg of Georgia.

Harvard competed in a series of invitationals throughout the fall and winter in preparation for the spring. Clayton had a very successful Wilson/ITA Northeast Tennis Regional tournament, in which he was seeded No. 1 in both singles and doubles. The senior recovered from his quarterfinal loss at last year’s regionals by beating Columbia’s Bogdan Borta in the finals, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3.

After two tiebreakers, Clayton got the best of Borta with relentless shots and solid serves. Paired up with sophomore Alexei Chijoff-Evans, Clayton also won in the doubles final against Brown’s top pair.

“It looked like we were going to have a great year after our performances at Napa Valley [in the Tennis Classic] and our showing at Flushing [in the USTA Invitational],” Chijoff-Evans said. “We did pretty much what we had to do early on.”

In February, the Crimson also fared well at the ECAC Men’s Indoor Tennis Championships, a tournament that featured fellow Ivy League opponents as well as St. John’s and Boston College.

After easily disposing of the Red Storm, 4-0, Harvard faced tough opposition in Penn. Chijoff-Evans captured the winning point for Harvard in an exciting matchup against the Quakers’ Hicham Laalej. After dropping the first set, Chijoff-Evans won the second in a tiebreaker, 7-6 (10-8). The sophomore showed that he wasn’t ready to give up, and the third set was a thrilling finish for a tense encounter. Chijoff-Evans proved to be the victor, holding on to a 9-7 win.

Columbia, which would prove to be a thorn in the Crimson’s side later on in the spring season, was Havard’s opponent in another narrow contest. The Crimson lost both its doubles games and found itself down a point early in the meeting. But senior Sasha Ermakov, sophomore Aba Omodele-Lucien, and freshman Davis Mangham were able to turn the tables as Harvard went up, 3-1.

Columbia bounced back to take two more singles matches, and the competition boiled down to the final matchup between freshman Alistair Felton and Columbia’s Ekin Sezgan. Felton shook off his doubles loss by showing his determination in winning the match in three sets, 3-6, 7-6 (10-8), 6-4. Harvard took the ECAC Championship in what would be its last championship of the season.

The Crimson couldn’t defend its Ivy League title successfully this year, ceding the crown to Columbia. Harvard began its Ivy League campaign against the eventual champions and lost, 4-3. It was the first loss for the Crimson in Ivy League play in two seasons.

“I think it was fair to say that this year was disappointing because the team had done a great job improving,” Harvard coach Dave Fish ’72 said. “We had every reason to think that we could win the championship again.”

Harvard bounced back with a close win at Cornell, 4-3, but couldn’t build on to that victory, losing to Princeton the following week, 4-3.

“We were really excited after the ECAC, but we suffered too many losses in Ivy League play,” Chijoff-Evans said. “We got unlucky when we played close matches.”

Two losses would prove costly to the Crimson, which was forced to settle for a second-place finish at best. But Harvard would not lose for the rest of the season, beating Penn, No. 73 Brown, and No. 64 Yale, 5-2. Defeating two ranked opponents in three days earned the Crimson a No. 64 ranking.

The end of the season would pit Harvard against lowly Dartmouth, a team that failed to muster a win this season. The Crimson won in dominant fashion, 6-1, and the victory secured a joint second place finish in the standings.

Clayton represented Harvard in the NCAA singles tournament but lost in the first round.

With a strong core of players returning, the Crimson will look to reclaim its Ivy title next season.

—Staff writer Brian A. Campos can be reached at