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With his last singles victory coming over two weeks ago, junior Mark Riddell was long overdue for a big win. Little did he know how big – and how gutsy – his next win would be.
Before Friday’s match against Brown, Riddell had failed to register a victory in Harvard’s last four matches. Riddell lost to opponents from Cornell and Princeton before being sidelined with tendonitis in his right wrist. The injury prevented Riddell from playing against Penn and Yale and limited his practice time before Friday.
But throughout this hard stretch, Riddell has always believed that his game would get going.
Though he employs the serve-and-volley strategy quite consistently, he hadn’t been able to hit any volleys until the day before his match. However, Riddell is a team player and would not let the Crimson down in its biggest match of the year.
Against Brown, Riddell played at the No. 4 spot, instead of his usual No. 2 spot. Riddell was not upset at the demotion, however, explaining that “[sophomore Jonathan] Chu and [junior Cliff] Nguyen have really picked up their games and that I hadn’t played recently.”
But it was Riddell who really picked up his game, fighting off double-digit match points in the second set, and prevailing 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4. His efforts in the second set were particularly crucial because they prevented Brown from earning another team point at a juncture when the momentum might have turned toward the Bears.
Riddell’s dramatic efforts in saving over 10 matchpoints allowed junior co-captain David Lingman to clinch the match and Ivy League crown for the Crimson. Although he was quite cognizant of the importance of his match, Riddell never counted the matchpoints that he had held off, and in fact, remained “oblivious to the score, because [he] didn’t want to get caught up in the situation.”
Throughout the first set, against Zachary Pasenen of Brown, Riddell continuously had to play catch-up after losing his service and breaking back to keep the set competitive. The flow of the first set was unusual for Riddell, typically adept at holding his serve.
The constant pressure of having to break serve caught Riddell off guard. Riddell described Pasenen’s serve as, “real flat and hard, without much spin, and kind of like a baseball closer’s pitch.”
Still out of rhythm after one set, Riddell concentrated on finding his opponent’s weakness. The Sarasota, FL native knew that it would be a close match, and “played with a deciding-match mentality,” which he advises as the optimal way to play tennis.
During the second set, in which he faced several matchpoints down 5-4 and 6-5, Riddell fought for every point, looking for a chance to get an edge on his opponent. Yet Pasenen would not go away. Hitting several passing shots off his backhand, Pasenen did not look like the same player whom Riddell had previously defeated in three sets last fall.
Riddell stuck to his guns and looked for short balls to make his approach to the net, where he felt most comfortable. He finally took the second set, prevailing 7-4 in the tiebreaker.
Following the same trend as the first two sets, Riddell was forced to battle his own serve. Counteracting his own losses of serve with timely break-point conversions, Riddell finally got the edge at 5-4. Forcing his opponent into consecutive unforced errors to go up 40-love, Riddell successfully closed out the match to give Harvard its fifth and final team point in its 5-2 victory over Brown. The victory guaranteed Harvard an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Given last year’s disappointing finish, a 4-3 loss at Brown, Riddell’s jubilation is quite understandable. “This was the sweetest victory of the year. It was truly remarkable to earn a convincing victory against our rival.” What may have been even sweeter for the Crimson and its fans was the sight of Riddell, playing courageously and victoriously, despite the unfavorable circumstances.
—Ashwin M. Krishnan
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