The Harvard men’s tennis team finished its season last Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Norman, Okla., falling to Northwestern, 4-3.
The loss was a heartbreaker for the No. 34 Crimson (19-8, 5-2 Ivy), and even closer than its 4-3 final score indicated. The defeat means that Harvard will fall just short of its results from the previous three seasons, when it won its opening match in NCAAs to advance to the Round of 32.
“All in all, we did everything we could to win,” Harvard coach Dave Fish ’72 said. "Sometimes, that’s all you get. We’re very disappointed, but really proud of the guys at the same time.”
Last time the Crimson took on the No. 28 Wildcats, it fell by a razor-thin 4-3 margin on Feb. 8. This time, the match was even crazier, featuring two weather delays, a change of location, and several tense back-and-forth battles over its six-hour span.
The two teams started outdoors at the Headington Family Tennis Center at the University of Oklahoma. Harvard’s embattled doubles teams fought and eventually took home the doubles point.
While the top tandem of junior Nicky Hu and sophomore Brian Yeung went down, 8-2, the second tandem of sophomore Sebastian Beltrame and freshman Jean Thirouin squeezed by their opponents, 8-7(7-5), returning from a 3-6 deficit and saving match points in the process. Co-captain Denis Nguyen and freshman Grant Solomon also had to save a match point before eventually prevailing at third doubles, 8-6, to send the Crimson into singles with a crucial 1-0 advantage.
“It would not have been this close if No. 2 doubles didn’t fight their way back to win the doubles point,” Yeung said.
With the singles matches in the middle of the first sets, the teams were informed that there was a lightning delay, and that play would resume indoors. Harvard took just two first sets, but the Crimson would continue battling.
Beltrame went down, 6-3, 6-1, at No. 3, but Hu put Harvard up, 2-1, with his 6-4, 6-3 victory at second singles. Beltrame was facing Northwestern’s Konrad Zieba, who did not compete the last time these two teams faced off.
“He was not in their lineup last time,” Fish said. “But he was lights out, and changed their whole team.”
The Wildcats battled back, as Yeung went down on the fourth court and Solomon lost, 6-2, 7-6(2), to put Northwestern on the brink of victory at 3-2. But Nguyen closed out a 7-6(7), 6-3 win at the top spot to knot the match up again.
The match all came down to freshman Kenny Tao’s match on the fifth court. But the match was interrupted again—this time by a tornado warning—and the teams were evacuated to a tornado shelter for 45 minutes with the match tied 2-2 in the third set.
Eventually, the contest reached a third-set tiebreak. With Tao serving up, 6-5, Tao called the return by the Wildcats’ Fedor Baev out, but the umpire overruled it to make the score 6-6. And because the point marked Tao’s third overrule of the match, he received a one-point penalty, putting Baev up, 7-6.
After Tao almost had the match won with a 7-5 tiebreak score prior to the overrule, suddenly Baev was in control after the three-point swing. He eventually prevailed, 9-7, in the tiebreak, giving him the win and sending Northwestern to the Round of 32.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” Fish said. “We did everything but win. All of these judgments happen in a fraction of a second. We were all stunned. Kenny was stunned. One tiny error in judgment, and the match ends on it.”
And with that, so did Harvard’s season, and the careers of decorated seniors Nguyen, Steinroeder, who did not compete due to injury, Shaun Chaudhuri, and Henry Steer.
“It’s sad for the seniors that the ride is over,” Steinroeder said. “But we couldn’t have asked for a better four years playing for Harvard tennis.”
—Staff writer Justin C. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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