In the first weekend of the NCAA men’s tennis tournament, the Harvard men’s tennis team both rose and fell, winning its first match before losing the next afternoon. At the Ring Tennis Complex in Gainesville, Fla. the Crimson was able to take down Virginia Tech on Saturday morning in a match decided largely by conditioning, 4-2. On Sunday afternoon, Harvard was out-muscled by Florida, 4-0.
FLORIDA 4, HARVARD 0
Perhaps for the first time since its Feb. 4 loss to Indiana, Harvard faced a competitor who was simply too strong to overcome. As a result, the Crimson lost, 4-0, to the 12-seeded Gators, ending Harvard’s NCAA tournament run and its season.
“It was great to be a part of that match,” co-captain Alistair Felton said. “We played such a good team at their place in front of their crowd. It was so much fun…. We came out so fast to start with. We were so energetic and loud, they were really, really, taken aback. We put up a great fight in the doubles match and in singles they were just a bit too strong for us in those conditions.”
Felton and sophomore Casey MacMaster, the doubles players on Court No. 1, were the only Crimson-clad players to squeak out a win on Sunday. The duo won, 8-5, despite trailing 2-1 early in the match.
“Personally, I was really happy that that is the match that I’ll go out on,” Felton said. “It was a great, great effort against a really good pair. It was really satisfying because everything we’d worked on in training over the course of this year played a force and a part in that win.”
Senior Jonathan Pearlman and sophomore Christo Schultz faced the reverse situation. After starting off against their No. 64 ranked doubles opponents in the lead before losing it and then pulling ahead, 7-6, the pair could not hold on any longer and fell, minutes later, 9-7. Junior Andy Nguyen and freshman Denis Nguyen also could not overcome Florida, losing 8-2. By losing two out of the three matches, Harvard lost the doubles point and faced an opening deficit of 1-0.
Singles play proved to be no better for the Crimson. Four out of six of the Gators’ singles players came into the tournament with national rankings—and played accordingly. After freshman Alex Steinroeder lost, 6-1, 6-4, Schultz was defeated, 6-2, 6-3, by Nassim Slilam, a senior ranked 53rd in the country. With those two losses, Harvard was down 3-0, one point away from being eliminated. And, with No. 66 Spencer Newman’s win over freshman Shaun Chaudhuri, 6-2, 6-3, Florida’s victory was complete, advancing them to the Sweet Sixteen and sending the Crimson home. The remaining two singles matches were considered negligible to the overall score, and were not finished.
“Their lineup was incredibly deep, but we certainly didn’t get outclassed,” Felton said. “I think, having seen this level, the guys on our team certainly think they can be at the level of Florida in the future.”
HARVARD 4, VIRGINIA TECH 2
The first match of the weekend proved to be the more positive for Harvard. It defeated the Virginia Tech, 4-2, and earned a spot in the NCAA tournament’s final 32.
“We kind of knew what to expect from them since we had played them earlier this year,” Felton said. “We knew it was going to be a really close match. It was our conditioning that really paid off in the end as Dennis’s opponent was cramping and unable to continue while Denis was still going strong. We were really pleased that our hard work in that respect was rewarded.”
Despite an initial win in doubles play from Felton and MacMaster, 8-5, the Crimson lost two straight contests to fall into an early 1-0 hole in the overall match. Pearlman and Schultz fell to their Virginia Tech counterparts, 8-6, while Nguyen and Nguyen were defeated, 8-5.
With singles play came the Crimson’s first drama of the tournament. The first individual match to be finished was Schultz’s, in which he fell, 6-0, 6-2. Next up was freshman Henry Steer who took down his competition, 6-4, 6-2, followed by classmates Steinroeder, who earned the 6-2, 6-2 victory, and Chaudhuri, who won in three sets, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
But the rest of the matches would not be fully played out. After freshman Nguyen won his opening set, 6-3, and lost the second, 6-7 (2), his opponent, Lucas Oliveira, began showing signs of injury. Five games later and down 4-1, Oliveira withdrew from the match due to full-body cramps. As a result, Harvard was given the point and a 4-2 lead, clinching the win and rendering Pearlman’s matchup against No. 47 ranked singles player Luka Somen meaningless. Before the whistle was blown, that contest was tied at one set apiece, with Somen leading the third.
Felton emphasized his belief that, after having had a small sample of the play at the national level, the team wants to come back stronger than ever.
“The team loved being in the NCAA [tournament],” Felton said. “Having tasted it, it definitely motivated [us] to come back for more next year.”