In its final tune-up before Ivy League play commences this weekend, the Harvard men’s tennis team showcased its depth in singles and entered conference season on a high note with a 5-2 victory over St. Johns on Sunday.
The No. 30 Crimson (11-5) outlasted the Red Storm (10-6), overcoming a slow start to capture its seventh win in eight all-time matchups against St. Johns.
Harvard continued its up-and-down performance on the doubles courts of the Murr Center. After strong doubles play throughout a runner-up showing at the Mission Valley Spring Classic, the Crimson reverted to its previous inconsistent form.
“I think we’re inconsistent sometimes,” Harvard coach Dave Fish said. “The team probably won’t be able to achieve its potential until everybody comes and understands how to put in [the proverbial] 60 minutes of play. Not some, not most, but 60 minutes.”
Co-captain Casey MacMaster and junior Denis Nguyen, the 11th-ranked doubles tandem in the country, fell on court one, 8-5. Then freshman Brian Yeung and sophomore Nicky Hu, who lead the team with seven dual-match doubles wins, went down, 8-6, on the second court.
Harvard’s only victory came from freshman Sebastian Beltrame and junior co-captain Alex Steinroeder, and the pair had to overcome being down a break early before coming back for an 8-6 final margin.
“We have to give St. John’s credit for playing so well in doubles,” Steinroeder said. We came out a little flat, and they had a lot of energy.”
The Crimson headed into singles with a 1-0 deficit, but quickly turned it around. Nguyen, ranked 31st nationally, got things started with a 6-1, 6-1 triumph at first singles, and Yeung gave Harvard a lead with a 6-2, 6-1 win at No. 4.
“Denis was consistent and applied pressure at the right times in his match,” Fish noted. “That’s when he’s most dangerous. Brian Yeung had a really good outing. He just threw it out there and used his power game.”
Hu served up a 6-2, 6-4 beatdown on court six, pushing the Crimson lead to 3-1. Junior Shaun Chaudhuri then ended the drama and clinched the match with the team’s fourth straight-set victory on the third court, recording a 6-2, 6-4 win. Beltrame helped provide the only win in doubles, but was responsible for the only loss in singles, falling in a contested match, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6, to the Red Storm’s R.J. Del Nunzio.
After the match was clinched, Steinroeder took the team’s final victory, 7-6, 4-6, 1-0, to provide the winning margin.
With the non-conference campaign in the rearview mirror, the squad now sets off into what promises to be a tough Ancient Eight slate in hopes of winning its third straight crown.
Last year, Harvard went 6-1 in Ivy play en route to the title and a second round appearance in the NCAA championships. This year, it hopes to match and surpass last year’s feats, but it must overcome the loss of the graduated Andy Nguyen and the integration of new, inexperienced freshmen.
“[Beltrame] served for the match twice but couldn’t close it out,” Fish said. “It has nothing to do with being bad under pressure. He just put in 50 minutes and thought it would be enough, but he’ll learn…. At this level, you learn that what used to get you an A now gets you a C.”
But Fish believes in the team’s ability to push past its early-season jitters and enjoy a successful conference campaign.
“When things aren’t going well, you have a little more doubt,” Fish said. “And it’s the doubt, not a lack of ability, that brings you down. Mastery is about knowing you’ve done the work, and bring that attitude. Our team has been learning these lessons, and knows this is what it takes. That’s our challenge.”
—Staff writer Justin C. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.