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.
“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].”
And with the expansion of the game, Fish has been able to expand his reach beyond the Ivy League level and become a national presence.
“Dave is one of the real titans of Harvard coaching, but also a titan of coaching nationally in the tennis community,” said Andrew Rueb ’95, a former captain of the tennis team. “All the top coaches call Dave for a little perspective and wisdom because he’s so well-respected amongst other college coaches.”
MORE THAN A FOREHAND
But beyond Fish’s success on the court, his former players believe that his greatest asset is his skill as a teacher and mentor.
“Results on the court are one thing, but Dave’s legacy is also as a mentor,” Rueb said. “He has a knack for helping young boys grow up into men, and really enjoys that process of mentorship and personal growth. There’s a reason the alumni are so supportive; he played a large part in shaping their future paths.”
Peter Stovell ’93 echoed Rueb’s belief that Fish was focused on making his players into better young men.
“Dave is concerned about how to hit a forehand, but also with the character of his players,” Stovell remarked. “There are a lot of people who can teach a forehand, but he can teach that, but also how to grow and mature. The character piece of his teaching is really important, and lasts a lifetime. A great teacher will impact you not only in the classroom, but also in all facets of your life—on the human side, your character.”
Fish’s strategy is to instill self-reliance in his players so that they can improve.
“I’m a thoughtful coach,” Fish said. “I try to persuade by logic rather than getting into your face…. My quieter approach means that people have to take responsibility for themselves.”
Fish’s desire to find motivated and driven players materializes in recruiting, where he tries to find players who will understand his message.
“Good organizations are effective because they’re clear about their missions and goals,” Rueb said. “Dave is smart about finding the right kind of kids who are a good fit for Harvard. He doesn’t hide Harvard’s challenges. In recruiting, he sends the message that this will be an adventure, and will test all of your skills and abilities. Kids that are attracted to that message come here with that set of expectations, and those players are happier and more engaged on and off the court.”
Players that buy into the message and appreciate challenges help to create a strong, cohesive team.
“I can’t teach somebody something they don’t already have in them,” Fish said. “I can’t coach effort, for instance. If they don’t have that built in, we have the wrong guys…. I love using teamwork to reduce the parts of people that tend toward being selfish. We can’t be a team until you reduce the amount of ‘I’ in your approach.”
Stovell embodied the type of player that fit into Fish’s program. By committing to the team-first philosophy and by giving maximum effort, Stovell transformed from a fringe player into a team leader.
“Pete came out for tennis, and wasn’t very good,” Fish recalled. “I used to joke that he was 15th on a squad of 12. But every day he’d work, suck up what I’d told him, and just kept creeping and getting better through sheer force of will. Finally, by senior year, he became captain.”
For his part, Stovell credits Fish with helping him to maximize his potential and become a smarter player.
“In life, you just hope you get a chance,” Stovell said. “If you can work really hard, maybe you get that chance. Dave gave me a chance, and really worked with me and anyone who showed the initiative to improve…. He gave me the belief that if you put in maximum effort, great things would happen. He didn’t give up on you.”
Stovell believes that it is Fish’s emphasis on hard work that has brought him such consistent success on the court over four decades.
“When we had a big match, Dave never told us that we had to go out and get a win,” Stovell recalled. “He always just said we needed to be prepared and work our hardest. He told me to be dangerous. He instilled in us his belief that if we put in the work, it would translate out there on the court.”
Fish’s focus on fostering his players’ personal growth and emphasis on hard work have reaped dividends, but what really sets him apart and has contributed to his lasting success is his desire to learn and change.
“Dave is an insatiable learner,” Rueb said. “He’s always adding to his toolkit, and that’s what keeps him so young and engaged. You would think as an older coach, you’d be set in your ways and have a formula.
But his method has always been to strive, and not to yield. He is always adding a new drill and trying new things to find an edge.”It is this will to improve, this passion for teaching the game, that keeps Fish going. After 37 seasons, he and his team are still national contenders. The Crimson, currently ranked just inside the top 50 programs in the country, has captured the last two Ivy crowns, and, after graduating only one senior in Andy Nguyen and bringing in a highly-touted crop of freshmen, is poised for more success.
“The danger of longevity is that you start repeating the same thing over and over again, and that’s not something I have an interest in doing,” Fish pointed out. “Any good coach is a good student of the game, and you have to keep up with that and try new things.”Fish has stayed ahead of the ball in collegiate tennis and remains at the top nearly 40 years later. He sees no reason to slow down now.
“I love the game,” Fish said. “If you find something you really love, why would you do something else?”
—Staff writer Justin C. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @justincwong94.