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For the second day in a row, the No. 14 Harvard men’s tennis team fought tooth-and-nail against a nationally ranked opponent. And for the second day in a row, the score remained knotted at 3-3 with one match left on the courts, all eyes resting on the final singles players locked in an epic battle.
But for the first time in a long while, the ball just wouldn’t take any Harvard bounces, and the Crimson fell 4-3 to No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth in the finals of the Blue Gray Invitational.
The tournament, held at the Lagoon Park Tennis Club in Montgomery, Ala., remained a dead heat until the end, as Harvard co-captain David Lingman lost the deciding match 1-6, 6-4, 5-7 after balancing a slew of match points on his racket.
“David fought as hard as anybody has ever fought on our team,” said associate coach Peter Mandeau, “and it just fell the other way. It was an unbelievable match.
“But the thing is,” he added, “it’s a team event. The whole team wins or the whole team loses.”
The Crimson (9-3) had no shortage of chances throughout the match to steal a victory from the Rams (16-2, 1-0 Colonial Athletic Association).
Senior Chris Chiou rolled to a quick 6-1, 6-1 victory and freshman Jack Li eked out a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win as well. And though Harvard’s remaining four singles players dropped their first sets, three managed to win the second and push their matches to deciding third sets.
The score would have been 4-3 in Harvard’s favor if the squad had managed to secure the doubles point—something with which the squad has struggled lately despite early-season dominance.
Chiou and partner Cliff Nguyen captured an 8-5 win, making the newly-formed duo a perfect 3-for-3 lifetime. But senior Mark Riddell and sophomore Brandon Chiu lost 8-6, and Lingman and partner Jonathan Chu fell in a tense tiebreak, 9-8 (5). That marked the fourth straight loss for the pair, which had been nearly unbeatable before the Blue Gray.
“Needless to say the doubles point is an essential part of college tennis,” Chu said. “David and I, we had our chances, and it was really, really close.”
So was the entire meet. Riddell clinched his match with a gritty 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 showing, but Chu lost 6-7 (3), 6-3, 1-6. Nguyen—who later recieved the Blue-Gray National Invitational Sportsmanship Trophy at the tournament’s conclusion—also fell 3-6, 3-6.
“It’s a wonderful honor for him,” Mandeau said of the award. “I’d think it’s pretty meaningful for a senior captain.”
The losses of Chu and Nguyen marked déjà vu all over again for the Crimson. In the previous day’s semifinals against UNC, the squad had also faced a 3-3 knot. But unlike the Tar Heel contest, in which Riddell staged a remarkable three-set comeback to clinch a 4-3 Harvard victory, Sunday’s match against the Rams proved just out or reach.
Before teammates, opponents, and several hundred fans, No. 35 Lingman battled VCU’s No. 84 Pedro Nieto through a thrilling third set. The Crimson senior led 5-2 at one point, but Nieto managed to battle back to 5-4.
“[Lingman] was right there,” Nguyen said, “and [Nieto] played unbelievably.”
Receiving at 5-4, Lingman held six match points, but once again, Nieto staved off elimination.
“It’s always tough to be the last guy out on the court,” Chu said. “You think in the back of your mind, ‘I could win this, I could lose this.’
“It’s a lot of fantasy when you’re [just] trying to play tennis.”
After losing the final set 7-5, Lingman was frank.
“[Nieto] took a few chances and came up with a few miraculous shots,” he said. “I missed a couple shots. I missed one passing shot on match point by about an inch. So sometimes things just don’t go your way.
“But it was unfortunate for the team, because they’d fought back so hard, and all I wanted was to give it to them to finish off the week.”
Lingman’s teammates—who are all quick to point out that other Crimson players also lost—remain the first to praise him.
“We support Dave, and we’re proud of everything he does,” Chu said. “No one is to blame for this. We fought hard as a team, and we all brought what we could today.”
“David probably feels like he lost the match for us,” he said, “but the other guys win and lose points. He happened to be the last guy out there.”
And though losing is never fun, perhaps it was constructive that such a loss come “now, and not in the NCAA tournament,” Chu said. “It’s nice to have a little bittersweet feeling at the end so we have something to work for.”
After all, he added, “everything is a building block for something bigger and better.”
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