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No. 9 Harvard’s loss to No. 11 Columbia in the ECAC Championships last weekend marked the midway point in its spring season, which continues next month. The Crimson (6-3) has posted overall positive results against top-ranked opponents since the start of the season in January and continues to prove its mettle as the season progresses.
“I think this is a really competitive group,” head coach Andrew Rueb ‘95 said. “They've got a lot of resolve, and they've got a lot of belief in themselves and their teammates. [Those are] the ingredients you need to have a really good season.”
And the team showed just that resolve in its kick-off match in January. After a successful fall season of mostly individual play, Harvard began the spring season with two strong showings in North Carolina, where they faced No. 35 NC State and No. 22 Duke. Senior Steven Sun closed out the Crimson’s hard-fought victory over NC State with his 7-6, 7-6 singles win over Luca Staeheli.
The next day, Harvard prevailed over Duke in a similar fashion, 4-3. This time, it was sophomore Danny Milavsky who clinched the last necessary singles match, 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-1. The match marked Harvard’s first victory over the Blue Devils since 1996.
“It is a learning experience for them,” said Rueb of the close matches in North Carolina. “They really are seeing just how relentless you have to be, and how good the quality is.”
The Crimson’s schedule of play has been full of top-ranked opponents outside of the Ivy League. After the opening weekend in Durham, Harvard traveled to Chapel Hill for the ITA Kickoff, where they posted mixed results. The weekend began with an impressive win over Columbia, 4-2. After losing the doubles point, which is earned by the team that wins two of three six-game doubles matches, the Crimson fought back to take five of the six singles matches.
“If you want to be amongst the best in the country, you have to play them,” Rueb shared.
Harvard’s three-match win streak was cut short when it met the University of North Carolina to close out the ITA Kickoff, 1-4. The Tarheels took the doubles point handily before winning three singles matches to conclude the competition. Milavsky had a straight-set victory against Karl Poling in the fourth position. Ultimately, Anuj Watane seized the third set against Sun to secure UNC’s win, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2.
“They're learning their lessons and making improvements, which is all you can ask for,” Rueb commented. “You want to be playing your best tennis in April and May, and we're on track to do that.”
The Crimson took to the road once again earlier this month to compete against No. 13 Northwestern and No. 3 Michigan which showed more mixed results. Against Northwestern, Harvard put its UNC loss behind them with a 5-2 final score. The Crimson swept doubles to pick up the extra point, after which Walker, Milavsky, and junior Ronan Jachuck took the top three singles matches. First-year Valdemar Pape also secured a singles victory with his 7-6, 6-3 defeat over Gleb Blekher. Michigan proved a more difficult opponent for Harvard, eventually winning 4-3 after a series of incredibly close matches.
The Crimson’s most recent competition, the ECAC Championships, took the team on the road again, this time to New Hampshire, for a preview of the Ivy League competition. Over the weekend, Harvard faced off against three Ancient Eight foes: No. 24 Cornell, Columbia, and Dartmouth.
The Crimson completely shifted the momentum after losing the doubles point and trailing in each singles match to defeat Cornell, 4-1.
“It was looking like the match was going in one direction, and then each person was able to flip the script a little bit and trust their training and make headway,” Rueb said.
Harvard wasn’t able to hang on against Columbia despite their win earlier in the season, eventually losing by a margin of just a few singles points, 3-4. The deciding match was an exciting three-setter between Walker and Michael Zheng, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2.
“These matches are coming down to so few points that anything you can do to increase your chances by one or two percent makes a big difference in tennis,” Rueb reflected.
With the next team competition scheduled for March 13, the Crimson has time to fine-tune skills and find those few key points which have been so important in its matches thus far. The second half of the season will also bring the Ivy League Championships and the NCAA Tournament.
“What we did last year was great,” said Rueb of Harvard’s Ivy League win and second-round finish in the NCAAs. “I think that we'd like to take another step forward and see if we can't go deeper into the tournament.”
The Crimson will host No. 18 University of Virginia, the reigning national champions, as well as No. 54 Virginia Tech and Boston University on March 24-25 for its first home matches of the season.
— Staff writer Caroline G. Gage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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