The numbers are staggering: 37 seasons, 608 wins, 273 conference victories, 21 Ivy League titles, and 15 wins in 22 NCAA Tournament appearances.
But for all of the accolades Harvard men’s tennis coach Dave Fish ’72 has accrued in his career, there is just one number that continues to motivate him after all these years: five.
“As a coach, my goal is to find five elusive points in a match that we can win that we’d otherwise lose,” Fish said. “If we find those five points, it can turn a 6-3, 6-3 loss into a 7-5, 6-4 win. So mine is a quest for those five points. It means that everything we do in practice matters. There’s always something every day you have to get your teeth into, and if you don’t bring that intensity every day, you don’t make any progress. You don’t find those five points.”
It is Fish’s commitment to excellence and drive to constantly improve that has contributed to the success of Harvard tennis over the past four decades. Fish may be the Crimson’s all-time leader in wins and has led the team to unparalleled heights, but his desire for even more still burns strong.
“Every year, I want to do something better than I did it before. If you love what you’re doing, then there’s no such thing as burnout,” Fish points out. “So I’ve never been burned out as a coach. To me, it’s a privilege to do it. So I can’t wait to come to work and strive to be better every day.”
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM
Throughout his decorated career, Fish has seen the times and the game change. But 45 years after arriving at Harvard as a freshman, he remains at the place where it all began.
Fish came to Cambridge in the fall of 1968 to a campus torn apart by student protests over the Vietnam War, but quickly found a mentor in Jack Barnaby ’32, the legendary Crimson coach who coached Fish in both tennis and squash and whose Harvard records he has since surpassed.
“Part of the reason we were so fond of [Barnaby] is that he was the lighthouse while the rest of the world was spinning,” Fish recalled. “He didn’t care how long our hair was, how we felt about the war. He just gave us a set of values—to be a good person, to be honest—and didn’t worry about the peripherals.”
The young Fish excelled under Barnaby’s tutelage, becoming captain of both the tennis and squash teams. During his time as an undergraduate, he led the squash team to three national championships, and played for two tennis teams that took shares of Ivy League titles.
But more importantly, the more Fish learned from Barnaby and saw how he had built two squads into national powerhouses, the more Fish himself was intrigued by the idea of coaching.
“I realized there was a kernel of me that really loved coaching,” Fish said. “I would always ask, ‘Who’s going to take over after you, Jack? You’ve built a great program here, and someone’s got to care about it as much as you do.’ I wasn’t quite admitting to myself that I was the person who would do it.”
Directly after graduation, Fish did not initially stay on at Harvard to begin a coaching career. After spending a year traveling and coaching tennis, he came back to Cambridge and began his work as a pre-med student.
But as he embarked on even more schooling, he realized that he missed coaching.
Finally, over dinner one night, Barnaby asked Fish if he’d ever consider coming back and coaching the Crimson.