After 23 wins, three losses, and three different titles, the Harvard men’s tennis team had completed its best regular season in recent memory. The Crimson went 23-3 and 6-1 within league play, the latter mark earning it the Ivy title for the first time since 2008.
Harvard’s freshman class helped it emerge as a dominant force in Ivy League play. With four out of the six starting singles players in their first year on the squad, its effect was immediate and sustained throughout the season.
For both the freshmen and the upperclassmen, the name of the game this year was consistency, as both its singles and its doubles play boasted high winning percentages—.667 and .672, respectively.
Within singles play, the rookies reigned. Other than senior Jonathan Pearlman on court No. 1 and sophomore Christo Schultz, who spent his time flipping between courts No. 2 and 3, the rookies dominated the courts and the wins. In the dual season, freshmen Denis Nguyen, Shaun Chaudhuri, Alex Steinroeder, and Henry Steer played 88 combined singles matches for the team and won 69 of them.
In doubles, there were two consistent lineups for the team: co-captain Alistair Felton and sophomore Casey MacMaster as well as Nguyen and junior Andy Nguyen. The former of the pairs went 22-10 on the year whereas the latter achieved a 25-9 record.
“Doubles play was definitely a very important part of our success,” Felton says. “I think we worked on our doubles more than other teams, and we also have some really great doubles coaching. That really gave us an advantage in all our matches.”
After breezing through its first three matches of the dual season, the Crimson’s first challenge came against Vanderbilt. It took freshman Nguyen saving five match points, taking the lead, and ultimately winning his individual match to seal the day’s victory.
“It showed me that the match is never over till it’s over,” Nguyen says. “You always have to keep fighting no matter what the situation is. It gave us as a team, as well as myself, individually, confidence that as long as we give it our best, anything is possible.”
After a rough next day at Indiana, where the team lost, 5-2, it was smooth sailing for Harvard until its second conference matchup. During that span of time, the Crimson defeated 13 straight opponents, including Virginia Tech, Boston University, and Butler. The team handily won the ECAC championship, as well, by defeating Brown, 4-1, in the finals.
After ECACs, Harvard traveled west to participate in the Hilton Mission Valley Spring Classic, in which it pulled off the stunning upset by not only making it to the final round but also defeating the University of San Diego, a team then-ranked 16th in the nation, 4-3.
The Crimson won four games in a row following the competition and seemed to have found its stride entering Ivy play.
Columbia, though, stopped the streak. In a surprising 5-2 loss to the Lions, only Nguyen managed to put a point on the board for the Harvard singles.
“I think the Columbia game could’ve been a result of people wanting to keep our almost-perfect season going,” Steinroeder says. “We were a little tight. Instead of going out and trying to beat our opponent, we were just trying not to lose.”
The setback did not last long. The Crimson breezed past Penn, Princeton, Yale, and Brown, with the last of those clinching at least a share of the Ivy title. Those victories set the scene for the drama of the next match, played against Dartmouth, in which a Harvard win would give the Crimson an outright title while a loss would lead to a share of first place with Columbia and the Big Green.
Thanks to a performance from Nguyen in which he came back from a 1-0 deficit and, in three long, dramatic sets broke the three-all stalemate between the two teams, the Crimson was able to take sole possession of the Ivy title.
“A theme of our season is that although we’ve been winning so many of our matches, barely any of those victories have come easy,” Felton says. “We’ve had to battle really hard for almost every win. We knew that we had to be tougher, physically and mentally, than whoever we play. And because of that, every time we stepped on the court, we were such a difficult team to beat.”
Three players earned league honors for Harvard: Pearlman was named to the All-Ivy First Team while freshman Nguyen was placed on the second team. The doubles pair of Felton and MacMaster was placed on the All-Ivy doubles team.
—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.