For the first time all match, the Dartmouth fans were not screaming at the top of their lungs. All that could be heard were the thwacks of the racquets and the umphs from freshman Denis Nguyen and the Big Green’s Michael Laser.
But, with one final swing from Laser, the ball collided with the net. Dead silence filled the Baren Tennis Center for three, two, one. And then a final, unifying yell came from all those clad in Crimson.
With that shot in the net, Harvard won a come-from-behind victory that not only gave it the 4-3 win over Dartmouth, but also earned it the title of sole Ivy League champions.
“It was a pretty indescribable feeling,” freshman Alex Steinroeder says. “We were all so happy that after all the hard work we’ve put in and the long season, we were finally able to show that we were the best Ivy team and could finally grab that title.”
It was not an easy match for the Crimson, though. The team trailed early after dropping two consecutive tiebreakers to lose the doubles point.
Following Nguyen and partner junior Andy Nguyen’s 8-1 win the troubles began.
“It was hard not to be nervous,” co-captain Alistair Felton says. “You try all these various techniques to focus on the game and not think about the score, but it’s really difficult, especially when you are playing for the whole team, and it just comes down to you. That’s where it is especially nerve-wracking.”
In both of the doubles matches that Harvard lost, the Big Green had to make up deficits. In senior Jonathan Pearlman’s and sophomore Christo Schultz’s contest, the Crimson duo was up, 4-2, before the Big Green came storming back to take the 9-8 victory. Felton and sophomore Casey MacMaster went down similarly as they relinquished an early 5-4 lead, and a late 8-7 lead, to eventually fall, 9-8.
An hour and a half of doubles play led to zilch on the scoreboard for the home team, and a plus-one for its counterparts.
And, after Harvard nabbed a short-lived lead from two singles contests, Dartmouth came storming back and took control of the match, 3-2.
At that point, two individual matches were left in play, both of which featured Crimson freshmen against Big Green seniors. On court No. 2, Nguyen battled Laser, as Steinroeder took on Chris Ho on court No. 5.
“I was pretty frustrated at the beginning of the match because I was playing so badly,” Steinroeder explains. “I knew it was such a big match, and I didn’t want to lose for the team. I just never gave up. I started playing a little bit better, which put a little more pressure on my opponent.”
After dropping his first set, 6-1, Steinroeder battled for 90 more minutes to come back and earn the “W” for his team. At 5:45 p.m., three hours and 45 minutes after the day’s competition began, Steinroeder took down his upperclassman opponent, 1-6, 6-4, 6-3.
“The feeling after was just pretty much relief,” Steinroeder says. “Relief and excitement.”
With the overall match at a draw, Nguyen’s individual match was just warming up. Nguyen followed Steinroeder’s lead, as he avenged a 5-7 loss in the first set with a 6-0 win in the second.
The freshman’s first two points following Steinroeder’s win were consecutive aces, tying the third and deciding set at 2-2. Four points later, a sliding shot from Nguyen tied it up at 30-all and led the way to wins in two consecutive games. After Laser rebounded to decrease his deficit, 4-3, Nguyen fought back and took the next game without losing a single point. Only a minute later, though, Nguyen’s Dartmouth counterpart once again seized control. With that game, the score was 5-4.
Nguyen took the next two points to take a 30-0 lead. After the rookie double faulted, momentum swung momentarily back to Laser, who tied it up at 30 apiece. But thanks to a shot that sliced down the line, crosscourt from where Laser stood, Nguyen retook a slender lead. The game was 40-30. The next shot was match point.
Nguyen served the ball and, after a short rally, the ball was in the net and the match was won. Though Harvard trailed, as a team and individually, it only took a couple of freshmen to rally and earn their team the thing that it had been fighting to reclaim since 2008: sole possession of the Ivy crown.
“It obviously would’ve been less nerve-wracking if we hadn’t have had that final situation, but I think it showed that we are able to fight through adversity and come together as a team,” Steinroeder says. “That match just culminated everything we’ve stood for this season, as we came together and proved that we were the strongest team mentally.”
—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at email@example.com.