When the Harvard men’s basketball team defeated New Mexico in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, it was hailed as a Cinderella story.
But even the basketball squad’s underdog journey pales in comparison to that of junior Denis Nguyen of the men’s tennis team. The Anaheim, Calif., native just completed an improbable run by reaching the national semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Singles Championship.
"I had no idea I was ever going to make it that far,” Nguyen said. “I was so happy to finish so deep in the tournament. I thought winning a round would be nice. Winning two was huge because it secured All-American [status], and after that it was just a blur."
But while Nguyen may not have anticipated his run, Harvard coach Dave Fish ’72 has seen Nguyen’s substantial promise and was unsurprised by his success.
"We saw this kind of potential from the beginning with Denis,” Fish said. “Over the last year…he’s played at this level in parts of matches. There have been two things [holding him back]: his mind hadn’t yet caught up with what his body was able to do, and his understanding of the level of conditioning necessary to play his game to the fullest extent."
While the rest of his Harvard classmates are enjoying the start of their summer vacation, Nguyen, who is ranked 39th nationally and earned an at-large bid into the bracket, traveled to Athens, Ga., to compete in the tournament, which was held May 21-26.
Nguyen went 11-4 in dual play for the season at the No. 1 slot for a Crimson squad that placed second in the Ivy League and advanced to the Round of 32 at the NCAA Tournament in early May. He also earned All-Ivy League singles honors for the third straight year, including a unanimous first-team selection for the second consecutive season.
The junior backed up those accolades at the national tournament, coming out strong in his first round matchup against No. 40 Lloyd Glasspool of Texas.
Nguyen took an early three-game lead and eventually broke Glasspool’s serve on set point to take the first set, 6-4. In the second frame, Nguyen again jumped out ahead, and closed out the Longhorn junior, 6-3.
From there, Nguyen took on 44th-ranked Fred Saba of Duke in the second round. Harvard’s top singles player again started quickly, breaking the Blue Devil senior’s serve and jumping out to a 4-0 lead. Nguyen eventually took the set, 6-4, and won the second set by the same score to close out the match.
With the win over Saba, Nguyen advanced to the Round of 16 and officially clinched All-America status, becoming the Crimson’s first singles All-American since Jonathan Chu ’05. Chu also eventually advanced to the semifinals of the 2005 tournament.
"Being an All-American is one of the most prestigious awards a college athlete can really get,” Nguyen said. “It was always something that was there—a distant goal, a benchmark. I thought I could make it if I trained really hard, but didn’t think of it as something tangible I could attain."
Nguyen entered his Round of 16 matchup against South Carolina’s Andrew Adams a day after playing both his match against Saba and his doubles contest with co-captain Casey MacMaster in the doubles bracket, where Nguyen and MacMaster fell in a third set tiebreak.
But fatigue was clearly not an issue for Nguyen, as he again started fast, breaking Adams and taking a 6-4 victory in the first set. Nguyen was even better in the second, playing a near-perfect frame to win, 6-4, 6-1.
The triumph set up a quarterfinal battle with Florida senior Florent Diep, who led the Gators with 31 singles wins on the year. But Nguyen made quick work of Diep, finishing off a 6-2, 6-2 victory with an ace to advance to the final four.
Nguyen’s opponent was Pepperdine senior Alex Sarkissian, ranked 28th in the country. Nguyen started off strong as usual, with a 6-4 win in the first set, but dropped the second set, 7-5—his first lost set of the entire tournament. Sarkissian prevailed, 6-2, in the third to end Nguyen’s run.
Nguyen’s advancing to the national semifinals stands as the longest run for a Harvard player since James Blake reached the championship match in 1999.
Fish views Nguyen’s strong play on a national stage as an indicator of the strength of the Crimson program.
“We take it as an endorsement of what all the kids in the program have done,” Fish said. “By having a strong commitment to doing the hard work, Denis was able to put himself in a position to do something with his preparation. But if you don’t have good teammates, you can’t get that good yourself.”
Thanks to that preparation, it is all coming together for Nguyen—now an All-American, and a recently elected team co-captain and team Most Valuable Player.
“Throughout my Harvard career, I think I’ve improved each year, and in different parts of the game,” Nguyen said. “Balancing athletics with academics has enhanced my mental capacity to do well. Mentally, I was strong enough to go through the tournament, and this week has been a culmination of my work.”
—Staff writer Justin C. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @justincwong94.