“I said, ‘Jack, I’m going to go to medical school, and there’s a need for doctors in rural Maine.’ And he said, ‘Dave, that’s very noble, but I’ve always thought that if you find something you really love, you’ll probably make a bigger contribution to it than if you do something where there’s a need. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the right person to fill the need,’” Fish recounted. “I think in my heart of hearts I knew I was dying for some excuse to do something that I really loved.”
And as Fish pondered his next move and thought about how much he valued his summers spent coaching tennis, he understood what he needed to do.
“I love teaching and had a chance to coach,” Fish reasoned. “I realized that when you coach, virtually everyone in your classroom wants to be there. How many teachers can say that?”
BUILDING THE MONSTER
After serving as an assistant coach for two years, Fish took over for his mentor Barnaby as head coach of both the tennis and squash teams. He had big shoes to fill.
“He was an iconic coach, and I was the young kid on the block with a lot to prove,” Fish explained. “If I couldn’t earn the respect of the kids on the team, I would fail.”
But within five years, the young coach was able to bring back both the tennis and squash teams to national prominence and Ivy League dominance. Princeton was a force in racquet sports during the 1970s, winning Ancient Eight titles in both tennis and squash in three years.
“It took a while to tilt this juggernaut [Princeton] and have people start to think about playing at Harvard,” he explained. “Eventually, we built great programs in both tennis and squash.”
In the 1980s, Fish led the squash team to eight Ivy crowns and six national titles and captured six Ivy tennis team titles. But after the 1989 season, Fish left the squash team to focus exclusively on the tennis team.
“Squash felt like a much smaller world,” he explained. “Part of me wanted a bigger stage to play on. I was so torn between tennis and squash, but it felt like squash was a part-time position and tennis was becoming a year-round position. It presented a better challenge, and I felt like it was the right way to go.”
Indeed, tennis had changed a lot since Fish’s playing days, and Ivy League tennis had risen to prominence on a more competitive national stage.
During the 1990s, the Crimson went to the NCAA Tournament for 10 straight years, including a 1997 appearance in the quarterfinals.
“The Ivy League is an entirely different league than it was years ago,” Fish explained. “If we are good enough to get to the top of that heap, we’re well-trained for any national competition we get into.”
And Harvard has been able to stay atop the Ancient Eight, even with the changes to the game. The past two years, the team has won the conference and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Championships.
“This is what I’d call the golden age of Ivy League tennis,” Fish said. “It’s so deep and intense. Every match is crazy close. You try to have a great developmental system, but everyone is so even. We’re trying to be even plus [a little more].”