The No. 33 Harvard men’s tennis team has a long road ahead of it as the squad seeks to reclaim the Ivy League crown, which it relinquished to Columbia last season after capturing the championship the previous two seasons.
But fortunately for the Crimson (14-5), it has a strong foundation of underclassmen on its side— led by sophomore Brian Yeung and freshman Grant Solomon—who helped carry the team to victory in its matches on Saturday.
In Harvard’s final nonconference matchups before it dives into Ancient Eight play this weekend against Cornell and the defending-champion Lions, it dominated Buffalo and Amherst by scores of 6-1 and 7-0, respectively.
Playing against nonconference opponents gives the Crimson the opportunity to showcase its depth, and Solomon and other freshmen seized the chance to shine.
“On a tennis team, you’ve got one set lineup,” said Harvard coach Dave Fish ’72, referring to the underclassmen. “But matches like these allow us to show a lot more talent. We’ve scheduled three or four doubleheaders this season specifically so people can test out their play and understand how much better they’re getting. I think that’s a great way to develop.”
On Saturday, Solomon was the only Harvard player to compete in singles in both contests, winning two matches without dropping a set. The Dallas native posted a 6-3, 6-4 victory in sixth singles against the Bulls, before moving up to third singles and helping the Crimson make quick work of last year’s Division III national champion Lord Jeffs, cruising to a 6-2, 6-3 win.
Meanwhile, Yeung and co-captain Denis Nguyen, ranked 15th among doubles pairs nationally, downed their Buffalo opponents, 6-2, in the first match. Against Amherst, Yeung teamed with freshman Kenny Tao and won, 6-1, on the first court, and also contributed a three-set victory at No. 1 singles.
“In singles [against Amherst], I started off really strong, holding a lot of deuce points and breaking my opponent’s serve,” Yeung said. “In the second, I let my guard down and lost a couple close games. But I managed to regroup in the third and fought hard to finish the whole match.”
One reason for Harvard’s success in the early portion of its season is the emergence of Yeung and his ability not only to contribute in the singles lineup, but also in teaming with Nguyen at first doubles.
The Hong Kong native has stepped in seamlessly to replace the departed Casey MacMaster ’14. Nguyen and MacMaster were ranked as highly as sixth in the nation last season, but Yeung and Nguyen have already proven a formidable pair, placing 15th in the most recent poll.
“Denis has a strong return game, high-percentage volley game, and a big serve, so we hit it off really well and had a good tournament at regionals,” Yeung explained. “Our abilities complement each other, and his volley game helps us hold a lot of serves because he’s really good at the net.”
Similarly, Solomon, along with fellow freshmen Tao Jean Thirouin and Xavier Gonzalez, have provided a boost of energy for the squad.
“The freshmen have great energy and are really, really well liked by the upperclassmen,” Fish said. "They are getting better all the time…. Our team is a very big one so they may not be getting quite the level of experience as they could be on a midrange Ivy, but their attitudes have been terrific.”
And heading into the all-important Ivy season, the young guns will play an important role and be forced to step up their games.
“Columbia doesn’t know about are secret weapons—our freshman class,” Yeung said. “Heading into Ivy season, they have to take up the pressure of playing conference matches. Our Ivy standing depends on every single game, and they’ll be a key determinant in how our conference games will go…. This weekend was great to get freshman sophomores some good practice and matches.”
This year’s Ivy League is a stacked conference, with three teams ranked in the top 35 and three more among the top 60, headlined by No. 26 Columbia.
Harvard will attempt to get off to a fast start when it takes on the Lions and the No. 46 Big Red this weekend.
“It’s just impossible to predict what’s going to happen,” Fish said. “Everyone is good, and if a team manages to get you one weekend they’ll face another barrage the next weekend. It’s kind of up for grabs, and you have to give the nod to Columbia because they’ve performed great all year. But every team is great in fits, ourselves included.”
—Staff writer Justin C. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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