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Who needs James Blake when you have Andrew Styperek?
Not the Harvard men's tennis team this weekend in Princeton, where it was competing for the Eastern College Athletic Conference fall championship.
Styperek, a junior, completed Harvard's amazing comeback in the finals Monday against Columbia, where the Crimson, down 3-0 emerged from the absolute brink of elimination to pull out a 4-3 series victory and take the championship.
Columbia started the day strong, winning the doubles point by sweeping the three doubles matches. Salil Seshadri and Akram Zaman defeated the No. 1 team of co-captain Joe Green and Styperek 8-6, and the No. 2 pairing of sophomore William Lee and freshman Dave Lingman fell to the Lions' Sam Josephs and Donny Opici 9-7. Mickey Kaplan and Peter Holik completed the sweep by beating juniors Mike Rich and Anthony Barker 8-5, giving Columbia a 1-0 team lead.
"Basically, I was telling these guys that every one of them could win their match," co-captain John Doran said.
After the doubles debacle, things went from bad to worse for the Crimson. Seshadri defeated Lingman, who was playing in only his second singles match of the tournament, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, and Opici polished off Barker 6-2, 6-2. The Lions had a 3-0 lead and needed only one more point to claim the championship.
Of the four remaining singles matches on the court, Columbia players had won the first set in three of them.
Then, Lee came through.
He gave Harvard its first point, pulling off a tension-filled 7-5, 7-6 (9-7) win over Zaman. The veteran Green then fought back after losing the first set 6-4 to beat Steve Millerman 6-0, 6-2 in the next two sets at the No. 1 match. Freshman Oli Choo, playing at No. 5, completed the remarkable comeback, with a 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory over Oscar Chow.
With the score tied at 3-3 and the momentum shifting in Harvard's favor, all eyes turned to the No. 4 match between Styperek and Holik.
Styperek had dropped the first set, 6-4, but had come back strong to take the second 6-3. He was up a break, 5-3, in the last set when both players learned that the match would determine the championship. Returning serve, Styperek didn't miss a beat, winning the game and sealing the title.
"I heard it when I was playing, and I was a little nervous," Styperek said. "But I had a break of serve, so I was controlling the match. All I had to focus on was hitting the little yellow ball."
The Crimson won this tournament easily last year earning it the No. 1 seed for this match.
But in reality Harvard was not the favorite. The Crimson lost James Blake, the nation's No. 1 player in 1998, and graduates co-captains Kunj Mujmadar and Mike Passarella. Without these players, this seemed to be a rebuilding year for the Crimson.
Indeed, the team has two traveling freshman, Lingman and Choo. The ECAC's were supposed to be the first test to see how the team would incorporate its new talent.
"This ranks up there with the most exciting victories I have been involved with in my 24 years of coaching," Harvard Coach Dave Fish said. "The guys simply never stopped believing they could win this match."
What made the championship even more impressive was that the Crimson did it without the help of co-captain and top player John Doran. Doran has been suffering from patella tendonitis, and while he traveled with the team and hoped to get in his first action of the season, his knee wouldn't let him.
"I went with the off-chance that I would play," Doran said. "Basically I was there because only Joe [Green] and I had played in the tournament before. This is the best result ever in my years here."
The ECACs represented the first team matches Harvard played this year. After tuning up in singles and doubles individual tournaments over the last two weeks, the team was anxiously awaiting a chance to get in its first real dual meet.
The tournament was a 16-team, single elimination draw, with all the Ivy league teams competing. Luckily for Harvard, its first three matches were not all that challenging.
In the first round, on Friday, the Crimson took on No. 16 seed Georgetown. The teams of Green and Styperek, Lee and Choo, and Barker/Rich swept the doubles. No singles player dropped a set to the extremely overmatched Hoyas as Harvard won 7-0.
On Saturday, Harvard took on Navy, which had defeated Yale, in the quarterfinals. The Midshipmen actually won the doubles point with close victories by Mitch Koch/ Jim McHugh at No.1, 9-8 (8-6), and by Spencer Wilcox and Zafar Fisher, 9-8 (7-4), over Lee and Choo in another close match. However, the Crimson won five out of the six singles, all in straight sets, for the 5-2 victory.
Sunday, Harvard met Ivy League foe Brown in the semifinals. Up to that point, Brown had had easy wins over Marist and Penn State, and was on the short list of teams looking to take the tournament as the No. 4 seed. Fish switched around the doubles teams, pairing up a previously injured Lingman with Lee at No. 2 to replace Oli Choo. It proved to be a good move as Green and Styperek won at No. 1 and Lee/Lingman won at 2 to take the doubles point.
Harvard then took four singles matches, and could have swept had not Green and Lingman lost their singles matches in third set tiebreakers.
The 5-2 victory set up Monday's final against Columbia, which had rolled over Fairleigh-Dickinson, Penn and Princeton in the first three rounds.
"This means a lot," Green said. "After we lost a lot of players last year, the other Ivy teams were talking about how we would lose and go down. This shows we haven't, even with the young guys."
With the weekend's championship, Harvard earned an automatic berth into the ITA/USTA National Team Indoor Tournament, February 24-27, in Louisville, Kentucky.
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