The men's tennis team travels to the land of Spiro T. Agnew, the Chesapeake crab and the Baltimore oriole this weekend for a pair of key early-season matches that may be a first step in upgrading the "good-but-not-great" label the Crimson has worn the last two years.
Drained but enthusiastic following an encouraging performance during their spring-break California trip, the 6-3 racquetmen will face a talented Maryland squad at College Park this afternoon and a highly competitive, if less talented. Navy team at Annapolis tomorrow. The Navy match represents the start of the "real season" for Harvard--a string of nine Eastern League (the Ivies plus the academies) matches the Crimson must virtually sweep to take the league crown.
"It'll be tough, because they're pretty fair teams, and the guys are still recovering from a really big effort out west," coach Dave Fish said this week. "But I think we have a very good team, and I'd like to see us go down there and get two wins out of it."
Today's match will mark the first time a Harvard team has ever played Maryland, a result of Fish's beefed-up scheduling program. Perennial contenders in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference, the Terrapins rate as slight favorites to defeat the visiting Crimson.
Maryland features a solid trio of doubles teams and a good deal of depth in the middle of their six-man singles ladder, but Harvard matches up well in both categories. The Crimson racquetmen have two factors on their side going into the match--momentum from a 5-4 early April win over another ACC team, Virginia, and the fact that Maryland tennis players have a history of squandering their talent.
The Midshipmen, by contrast, make the most of their modest natural ability; they're consistently one of the best-conditioned, best-coached and--above all--most sportsmanlike squads in East Coast tennis. And the addition of freshman Dave Andrews, the top-ranked junior player in Hawaii, could be the spark needed to hoist Navy up from a mediocre sixth place (3-6) finish in the Easterns last spring.
Harvard's racquetmen handled Navy easily, 6-3, at the Palmer Dixon courts last April, and indeed, no player on the Harvard varsity has ever lost to the Midshipmen. Saturday's match should not be a problem.
But injuries and the search for the perfect lineup combination cloud the picture for the Crimson this weekend. While sophomore Jim Curley appears recovered from both a sore ankle and strep throat, senior Andy Chaikovsky's right shoulder remains irritated and senior Scott Walker re-injured a muscle pull in his back during practice Wednesday and may not play.
Fish is still uncertain about the singles roster, but sophomore Don Pompan has established himself as a fixture at number one. The doubles pairings, while also far from cemented, look like a growing strength for the Crimson. The third team of sophomore Bob Horne and recently-resurrected junior Greg Kirsch has played brilliantly of late, and the top duos of Pompan and Chaikovsky and Captain Kevin Shaw and Walker have developed into first-rate number two teams if unproven number one teams.
This year, the awesome Princeton Tigers have once more emerged as a unanimous pre-season pick to win, but Harvard and Yale have outside chances.
"It's the best team we've had here in four years," Shaw said this week, "but Princeton has the best team they've had in a while, too. I think we can definitely beat everybody in the league, but we'll have to pull off an upset to take Princeton down there."
The first step of the dark-horse chase for the Eastern title, though, will require not an upset, but just a steady, solid performance in the opener against Navy.
"The first match is important in setting the tone, just as the first couple of points in a game or a match are important," Shaw said. "If we start off aggressive and confident, as we finished the spring trip, we should roll."