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Tennis Titans: Harvard Women Outplay UMass in Pre-Ivy Showdown

Freshman Natalie Block hits a forehand in a match earlier this season. Block and Kavya Karra won in straight sets in their match against the Minutewomen.
Freshman Natalie Block hits a forehand in a match earlier this season. Block and Kavya Karra won in straight sets in their match against the Minutewomen. By Courtesy Harvard Athletics

Returning from a successful 3-0 spring break trip to California, the No. 50 Harvard women’s tennis team (14-2, 0-0 Ivy) defeated the University of Massachusetts (8-6, 0-1 Atlantic 10) 4-1 on Saturday at the Murr Center. The victory, in its final non-conference match of the season, extended the Crimson's win streak to an astounding 10 games.

The Sheila Kelly Palandjian Head Coach, Traci Green, commended the team’s exceptional performance. “I'm really proud of the way our team competed against UMass,” she said. “They always put up a strong fight, and they did that this weekend. Our team stepped up and they showed all the work we've been putting in.”

She further highlighted the invaluable experience gained during the trip out West, where Green said that the players were “truly tested.”

“We competed through heavy wind, cooler conditions some days, warmer conditions some days. It really was a great preparation for us for Ivy season, and that's what we wanted,” Green added. “As always, coming back home to the Murr didn't take long to get used to.”

Reflecting on the experience of playing before a home crowd again, junior co-captain Angel You said that “The Murr really feels like home for us. It’s loud in there, it gets rowdy, and it really brings the Harvard Crimson spirit out, so it’s always great to play in front of a home crowd.”

HARVARD 4, UMASS 1

The Crimson kicked off the matchup with a strong showing in doubles play. The first win of the day came from junior Holly Fischer and freshman Stephanie Yakoff at the No. 1 spot, as they prevailed over their opponents 6-3, marking the pair’s ninth victory together of the season.

“Steph and Holly are fun to watch as a team. They play with a lot of energy out there,” Green said of the pair. “Holly hits a powerful ball on both wings, and Steph has the ability to dart to the net at any moment, so any opponent that they play definitely has their hands full.”

Freshmen Natalie Block and Kavya Karra triumphed in the No. 2 position by an identical 6-3 margin. While the final doubles match in the No. 3 position was left unfinished, junior Rachel Arbitman and senior Iveta Daujotaite led by a score of 5-3 at the close. Ultimately, with wins in the No. 1 and No. 2 positions, the Crimson clinched the doubles point, a prelude to the success that unfolded for Harvard throughout the rest of the match.

You cited the coaching staff, Green and assistant coach Khary Pryce as integral to the team’s phenomenal season showing. “Coach Green and Coach Khary have really been the glue to our team and making sure that we stay on task during practice. They really help us work on the little things and get us motivated and excited about the season ahead. So, a huge shout out to them,” the junior said. “We just gotta keep going, keep the train running.”

Freshman Elsie Ragatz echoed You’s sentiment about the influence of the coaching staff.“We also have such great captains this year in Angel and Rachel,” Ragatz said. “We have gotten so close as a team, and I think that energy that you see on the court really transfers off the court. We have a great support network, and we really hold each other accountable, both and off the court.”

Harvard carried its winning momentum into its singles matches, securing all three singles points in straight-set victories. Freshman Kate Kim swiftly sealed the Crimson's second win of the day, clinching the first singles point with her straight set defeat of her Minutewoman opponent, 6-2, 6-3. Kim improved to 11-1 in dual action with her victory, earning her 21st win of the season and solidifying her lead in singles victories on the team.

“Kate has been progressing very nicely here in her first year at Harvard,” Green noted. “She competes really well, and has been finding ways to problem-solve on court.”

“Even on the days when things aren’t going her best, that's what I'm most proud of when I watch her play,” Coach Green added. “It’s not so much the victories but just the way that she problem-solves and stays so even and unbothered on those tough days. Overall, the team collectively has been showing that they're wise beyond their years and I just can't wait to see them in action these next few weeks.”

Fischer brought home Harvard’s second-straight set victory of the day, downing her opponent in a hard-fought 7-6 (1), 6-2 matchup at the No. 1 spot. This victory propelled Fischer to a 14-3 record on the year.

Ultimately, the match was sealed by senior Sany Gawande, as she breezed past her opponent in a decisive 6-4, 6-1 victory at the No. 5 position, securing for the Crimson its 14th win of the spring season and a 10-game win streak, its best start in program history.

“Every day at practice, we're really trying to focus and work on our games with Ivy season starting this weekend,” You said, explaining how the team has been able to maintain such a high level of play across the course of the season.

“We're making sure that we're taking care of business, taking care of our bodies, and really focusing every minute we're in practice. It's been paying off, and it’s really exciting to see all the girls excited and pumped up at practice,” she added.

Green underscored the value of focusing on the little things in attaining success. “For us, that means taking care of our bodies each and every day with pride. The more pride we show in doing little things like taking care of our bodies with sleep and how we eat and prepare, the better we are as a team.”

This week marks the start of Ivy League action for Harvard, as it sets out to New Haven on Friday to face off against No. 45 Yale in a highly anticipated rematch from the opening round of the ECAC Championship. Then, it will travel back to Cambridge for a match against Brown on Sunday.

Looking ahead, Green noted the Crimson’s progress since its last matchup against Yale. “We've improved a lot since that match against Yale. Not only mentally, but physically—we've got a lot more matches under our belt, a lot more experience. It's gonna be a battle, but that's what we're here for.”

Green also commented on the intimate nature of the Ivy season dynamics. “The cool part about the Ivy season is that you know all of your opponents pretty well—at the same time they know us. So the best thing we can do is prepare the best we can and keep fighting as hard as we can, and that's what we've been doing all season.”

You agreed that the team’s commitment to working on in-match adjustments and its determination will be pivotal heading into Ivy action. “Ivy season is super exciting. For us, we just need to know that we can fight and trust everything that we've put into the team.”

“I think that the spirit in our team is something to be feared,” You added. “We're just super excited to see what happens, get back on court, and show the Ivies what we're made of.”

The Crimson will square off against the Bulldogs at 2:00 p.m. on Friday in New Haven. Also on the team’s agenda, from April 12 to 14, Harvard Women’s Tennis will host its 50th anniversary celebration, featuring a panel discussion, facilities tour, and Ivy matches against Cornell and Columbia. More information regarding the celebrations can be found on the Harvard Varsity Club website.

—Staff writer Emma S. de Jong can be reached emmadejong@thecrimson.com.

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