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The Harvard women’s tennis team has been waiting for this weekend all season. Four years have passed since the Crimson last won the Ivy title, and the two teams to occupy the league throne since then—Princeton and Penn—are all that stand in the way of Harvard reclaiming the championship for the 14th time tomorrow afternoon.
Struggling Princeton (8-7, 1-3 Ivy), the 2000 Ivy champion, visits Harvard (15-3, 5-0) for a 2 p.m. match today. The Crimson’s greater threat comes at 1 p.m. tomorrow from two-time defending Ivy champion Penn (14-4, 5-0) to decide the league crown.
Though Penn has won 21 straight Ivy matches entering the weekend, the rankings deem Harvard the favorite. The No. 18 Crimson has established itself among the nation’s best this season with wins over three top 25 programs, including No. 6 Washington. The No. 39 Quakers are winless in four tries against top 25 teams this year.
Harvard coach Gordon Graham says to continue that success, the Crimson will have to find what he terms “the optimal level of arousal.”
“Our kids are pretty fired up and motivated to win the Ivy title back,” Graham said. “I think if anything it’s a matter of trying not to get too excited.”
Graham feels that while both Harvard and Penn have improved from last year, his team has made the greater step up. And while the Quakers are the tougher challenge, Graham warns against looking past Princeton, a team he expected to be among the league’s best before injuries set in.
With two victories, Harvard will not only win the Ivy title but also solidify its bid to host one of four 16-team NCAA regionals and possibly even earn the top seed in that regional.
This year’s Crimson team is healthier and deeper than the one that lost 5-2 to Penn a year ago. Back then the Quakers won easily in straight sets at No. 4, 5 and 6 singles. Now Harvard has a healthy captain Sanja Bajin at No. 5, where she is 17-0 this spring, and freshmen Eva Wang and Melissa Anderson at No. 4 and No. 6, where each is 14-3. Penn, meanwhile, has struggled to get consistent results at those spots all season.
Both Penn and Princeton’s greatest strengths are at the top of their lineups. The Tigers have 2000 Ivy Player of the Year Kavitha Krishnamurthy, who has split her two career meetings with Harvard sophomore No. 1 Courtney Bergman. Penn has 2002 Ivy Player of the Year Alice Pirsu, who is the top ranked Ivy player at No. 20 in the nation.
Bergman, ranked No. 42 in the nation, has beaten Pirsu in two of three career meetings, all last season. One of those victories came in straight sets at the 2001 Eastern Region Championship, which Graham described as Bergman’s best match of her college career.
“It was as one-sided as I’ve ever seen a match at that level,” Graham said.
Pirsu enters this weekend coming off a dominant 6-0, 6-0 victory over Yale’s Elizabeth Kaufman, who Bergman lost to in a third-set tiebreaker last week in her only Ivy defeat this season.
Bergman has played through stress fractures in her shins as of late and she struggled with the flu earlier this week. But she says that neither will be a factor this weekend. Graham says she is still far better healthwise than a year ago, when she lost to both Pirsu and Krishnamurthy in third-set tiebreakers.
“She’s showing signs of getting things together, so she’ll be fine,” Graham said. “Courtney can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country. There’s no doubt she can beat both those people.”
Bergman called Pirsu a great all-court player and said that they know each other’s games well.
“I don’t think she really has any weaknesses,” Bergman said. “I’m just going to have to break her down. A key against her is keeping the ball deep and then attacking and coming into the net.”
Pirsu is also a strong doubles player. She combined with Shelah Chao to win the Eastern Region Doubles Championship last fall. The two have since been split up, but Penn’s doubles are still strong. Neither Penn nor Harvard has lost an Ivy doubles match so far.
If Harvard can win the Ivy title, it will be among the youngest teams ever to do so, with Bajin the lone regular competitor among the junior and senior classes. Bajin has watched the team grow into a legitimate national contender in the past two years, while her role has changed from Harvard’s No. 1 player to its undefeated No. 5 player.
“I guess I was a little more naïve when I was younger just because I didn’t know how hard it really is to win a championship and how much of a whole team effort it was,” Bajin said. “It’s really easy to be individual when you first come into college because tennis is such an individual sport and you’re not used to being on a team.”
Bajin says that this year, unlike earlier her career, everyone is on the same page as a team.
“We’ve done a lot of team meetings and talking about what our goals are and making sure everyone wants the same thing,” Bajin said. “In the past when I was a freshman and sophomore it was always just kind of like going through the motions and not really knowing what everyone was there for, so I think that’s a big difference this year.”
If Harvard does win the Ivy title, Bergman insists that the Crimson will celebrate with class—something she feels Penn lacked a year ago. She recalls in last year’s defeat at Penn, the locals started blasting Queen’s “We are the Champions” over the speaker system while Harvard was still on the court. Also, Penn was still three Ivy matches away from clinching the league title at the time.
“They were pretty obnoxious and disrespectful to say the least,” Bergman said. “We’re going to be humble and respectful to them if we do in fact win.”
—Staff writer David R. De Remer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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