With the Dartmouth players on one side of the court and the Harvard players on the other, freshman Denis Nguyen adjusted his cap, looked up for a moment, and bounced the ball seven times. He paused, dribbled again, and served. After a rally of only four hits, Nguyen’s Dartmouth counterpart hit the ball into the left side of the net.
Game. Set. Championship.
With that point, the Crimson (22-2, 6-1 Ivy) not only defeated the Big Green (18-4, 4-3), but also earned sole possession of the Ivy League title on Saturday afternoon at the Baren Tennis Center.
It was a come-from-behind victory for Harvard, and it happened after four and a half hours of match play. And, for the final 30 minutes, all eyes were on rookie Nguyen and his senior opponent, Michael Laser.
“It really all came down to [Nguyen],” senior Jonathan Pearlman said. “He had an incredible match. We are all really proud of him for doing that. It was amazing. It was the deciding match.”
This wasn’t the first time that the freshman has pulled through for the Crimson. Events late in Saturday’s match proved strongly reminiscent of Nguyen’s match-winning heroics against Vanderbilt on Feb 3, when he also pulled out the victory to break a 3-3 tie.
Against Dartmouth, though, the stakes were higher. After seeing his teammates fall, and the score drop to dead even at 3-3, Nguyen realized that he would have to step up in order for his team to earn the title.
“It was definitely a high pressure situation, but once I saw the board was 3 all in the match, I knew it was my job to get the win,” Nguyen explained. “I wasn’t thinking too much about the outcome. I was concentrating on one point at a time. I didn’t get too far ahead of myself, I was staying in the moment.”
That he did. After coming back from an initial 5-7 loss in the first set and winning the second, 6-0, Nguyen was once again in an early deficit at 1-2. But, thanks to four aces in a matter of minutes, he was able to take the match and the conference title, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4.
But Harvard’s day did not start off in the same fashion, as it lost the doubles point after two breakers. While Nguyen and junior Andy Nguyen were victorious, 8-1, partners Pearlman and sophomore Christo Schultz as well as co-captain Alistair Felton and sophomore Casey MacMaster, fell, 8-9.
“I think the team was disappointed,” Pearlman said. “Especially given that they were so close. It was slightly demoralizing since it really came down to the breakers.”
Denis Nguyen expressed a similar sentiment, stating that he believed the team was “playing nervous” early on.
At the start of singles play, though, the Crimson was able to shake off its initial jitters and earn two quick wins thanks to Pearlman and freshman Shaun Chaudhuri who won, 6-1, 6-0, and 6-2, 6-3, respectively.
But Chaudhuri’s victory marked the end of the quick one-two victories, and from then on the matches were grinds to the finish. Freshman Henry Steer lost his fight, 5-7, 4-6, shortly before Schultz followed suit, 6-3, 3-6, 3-6. After more than two hours of straight individual play, freshman Alex Steinroeder tied up the match for Harvard with his 1-6, 6-4, 6-3 defeat over the Big Green.
At that point, Nguyen stepped up. And, thanks to his aces, his slides, and his precision, the outcome was as good as history.