Most members of the Harvard men’s tennis team only just finished finals, but for each of them, the real test starts now.
Following one of the best regular seasons in its history, the No. 23 Crimson (22-2, 6-1 Ivy) will face No. 45 Virginia Tech (11-11, 7-4 ACC) in the first round of the NCAA tournament tomorrow in Gainesville, Fla.
The match will mark the Harvard’s return to the tournament after a four-year hiatus. The team last participated in the NCAAs in 2008, when it dropped a 4-2 decision to Texas Tech.
But this year, expectations are greater than ever for the Crimson, which reached as high as No. 16 in the ITA rankings during the regular season and has already beaten the Hokies once this year.
That victory came on Feb. 11 in Cambridge, when Harvard held off its ACC opponent, 4-3. The Crimson won the match thanks to its doubles play, as Harvard swept all three matches to earn the doubles point. Because of that success, the Crimson has been putting extra focus on its doubles teams as it prepares for its rematch with the Hokies, who are coming off a first-round ACC tournament loss to No. 33 Florida State.
“Doubles play is key,” said freshman Denis Nguyen, who with junior Andy Nguyen beat Virginia Tech’s Lucas Oliveira and Hunter Koontz last time out. “It will be very important for us to get an early advantage and help us stay confident in the match.”
“We’re focusing a lot on doubles,” senior Jonathan Pearlman added. “We want to make sure to come out strong in doubles play, because in the end that could be the decider.”
That was the case last time, when the Hokies and Crimson split the singles matches 3-3. Pearlman, Harvard’s No. 1, fell to Virginia Tech’s Luka Somen, 6-1, 6-2.
Ranked the No. 48 collegiate player in the country, Somen picked up a dominant win last month against No. 24 Kevin King of Georgia Tech and finished 15-6 in the first spot this year. But Pearlman, who is 11-10 as Harvard’s No. 1 this season, thinks he can handle the senior this time around.
“[Somen] is a very strong player, but he’s beatable,” Pearlman said. “He’s a very good defensive player. Balls that would normally be finished or balls that I would hit and the point would normally be over, he retrieves. I’m just going to need to be prepared for long rallies, but I’m still going to bring an aggressive game and I think I have a good chance in this match.”
If Pearlman can pull the upset, it would alleviate some of the pressure on the other Crimson singles players, including Denis Nguyen and classmate Henry Steer, who both lost to their Hokie opponents last time out.
“We know they’re a really good team to compete against, so we know it’s going to be a battle,” said Nguyen, who two weekends ago, with his team tied 3-3, clinched the outright Ivy title for Harvard by rallying back to win the final two sets against Dartmouth’s Michael Laser.
According to Nguyen—who went 12-5 from Harvard’s No. 2 spot this year and was named to the All-Ivy second team as a rookie—one key to a win will be to avoid playing things safe during the course of the match.
“We’ve been playing pretty tight our last couple of matches,” he explained. “We need to play on our own terms and actually play to win, rather than to protect a lead.”
To be able to do just that, Harvard has not stopped working since it won its 29th-ever Ivy title by topping the Big Green, 4-3, on April 28.
“We’ve been practicing very hard these last two weeks since we beat Dartmouth,” said Pearlman, who last week was named first-team All-Ivy for the second consecutive season. “Everyone’s been really bringing everything to practice in the last 10, 12 days, so everyone’s very sharp and looking good going into this. Obviously it’s going to be a tough match. They’re a very strong team as well.”
If the Crimson can use that extra practice to knock off the Hokies, it would advance to play the winner of No. 11 Florida and Navy on the Gators’ home courts in the second round of the 64-team tournament on Sunday. The last time Harvard—which is 13-20 all-time in 21 NCAA tournament appearances—reached the NCAA quarterfinals was 1997, when it was shutout by No. 3 Stanford. Getting back to that point with the chance to avenge that loss is a feat the team is hoping to achieve this time around.
“We want to win these first two rounds and make it to the round of 16,” Pearlman said. “That’s the team goal.”
—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com.