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50 Years In, Harvard Women’s Tennis Finds Glimpses of Glory

The Harvard women's tennis team showcased glimpses of glory this past season, qualifying for the NCAA tournament and boasting a winning record in its 50th year.
The Harvard women's tennis team showcased glimpses of glory this past season, qualifying for the NCAA tournament and boasting a winning record in its 50th year. By Courtesy Harvard Athletics
By Emma S. de Jong and Reed M. Trimble, Crimson Staff Writers

Excellence in sports is not something that comes overnight. For the Harvard women’s tennis team, it has taken almost the entirety of the team’s five-decade existence to prove itself in the competitive landscape of both the Ivy League and NCAA.

But this year’s program, the 50th team, has definitively proved itself. It put up big wins, unprecedented dominance, and rapid growth that has characterized itself as a team built on the unity between a dynamic freshman class and veteran cornerstones. Its eclectic and electric mix of experienced players, mature youth, and some of the best talent the program has seen this millennium led the Crimson to a 19-5 record and a 5-2 finish in the Ivy League, good for second in the conference. The Crimson also claimed the longest winning streak in program history by winning 14 straight matches while going a month and a half without tasting defeat. It is this dominant performance and ability to break through to the top of its division that earned the award of Breakout Team of the Year.

Special teams are formed well before the season starts; team chemistry and cohesion don’t put points on the scoreboard, but they can still be the difference between a good team and a great one. The older members of the team were well aware of this fact, and they began watering the seeds of a supportive team environment by engaging with the incoming freshmen last summer.

“Even before school [started], the upperclassmen would reach out to us and ask, ‘What dorm did you get?’ or ‘What classes are you taking?’ They made an effort to really connect with us before we even officially joined the team,” freshman Natalie Block said. “[They] definitely made me feel like I was already a part of the team over the summer.”

Block’s fellow first-year Kate Kim echoed her sentiment, “Integration was super smooth and really quick,” she said. “Everyone was reaching out and helping with classes, what to pack and what to expect in tennis and school.”

Comfort off the court was reflected by comfort on the court for the freshmen. Starting with Harvard’s first dual match against Boston College, rookies Stephanie Yakoff and Natalie Block paired up with two team veterans, junior Holly Fischer and senior Sany Gawande, respectively, to claim the first doubles point of the season. Yakoff and Block continued to pair up with veteran leadership throughout the season, consistently claiming doubles points for the Crimson.

The turning point in Harvard’s season was marked by a 4-0 loss to rival Yale in the first round of the ECAC Tournament on Feb. 9. This crushing defeat was the Crimson’s only loss at home this season and motivated the team to dig deeper, sparking a two-month-long run of exceptionally skilled play that flipped the script on the team’s season. Harvard went on a 10-match win streak between the first matchup with the Bulldogs and its chance at redemption, a road matchup with the Bulldogs on April 5. The Crimson showed its growth and hunger by handing No. 45 Yale a loss in New Haven.

“Yale was definitely one of my favourite matches, because it shows just how much we’ve grown since earlier this season and in such a short amount of time. Our team culture there was so strong, we were super loud, and the energy was amazing even though we weren’t at home,” Kim added.

The squad, which is driven by a high-performing group of underclassmen, will be a team to watch in the fall.
The squad, which is driven by a high-performing group of underclassmen, will be a team to watch in the fall. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletics

While Harvard had the clear pressure of a rivalry and revenge match against the Bulldogs, the Crimson also had a secondary source of motivation: playing to tie the longest winning streak in program history. With its redemption against Yale, Team 50 showed its dominance. Two days later, Harvard went one step further and set a new record with a victory at home over Brown. The Crimson added two more wins onto the streak for show, including a victory over No. 43 Columbia. Harvard finally succumbed to defeat on the road against No. 68 Penn.

The team’s next loss, to No. 44 Princeton was heartbreaking for the team, as Harvard took the future Ivy League Champions to the wire, losing 3-4. Although this loss almost assuredly clinched the Ivy League championship for the Tigers and eliminated the Crimson from contention, Harvard showed grit and mental toughness by defeating Dartmouth on the road to finish the Ivy League and regular seasons. This win reflected the mental toughness that Sheila Kelly Palandjian Head Coach for Harvard Women's Tennis Traci Green and her staff preached to the team all year.

“Coach Green has told me to stay really present and focused,” Kim said. “Controlling what I can and don’t worry about what’s already happened because I can’t do anything to change that.” She showed that these words were more than a mantra by recovering from the Princeton loss to defeat her singles opponent in straight sets against Dartmouth.

“One of Green’s favorite quotes is ‘Turning the page,’” Karra added. “She says that a lot on the tennis court, but, for me, it really shows through in a lot of other facets of my life as well. It’s of course super helpful after we lose the doubles point and on the court but also a really important life skill.”

Its regular season track record earned Harvard a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010; this postseason berth ended the longest drought in program history. Postseason tennis is hard for any team, but the Crimson faces an additional challenge: Harvard finals season. The NCAA Tournament and finals week at Harvard run concurrently, forcing athletes to split their focus. Although facing finals and a tough opponent such as No. 9 Texas can be daunting, balancing the two challenges only further proves the team’s collective mental fortitude in being able to excel both on and off of the court.

The Crimson made a valiant effort in its playoff matchup, but ultimately, the superior depth of the Longhorns was too much for Harvard to overcome. Although the loss ended the Crimson’s season, there was no shame to be felt in defeat for Harvard. Of the Crimson’s losses in this stellar season, four of the five came on the road against ranked teams. The Crimson claimed victory over two ranked teams on the season and garnered seven shut-out victories, four of which were over Ivy League opponents.

The end of the season leads the team to perform reflection and introspection in the quest to improve during the offseason and maintain momentum for next season. The privilege of playing while wearing the Harvard name is something that could easily be overlooked during the rush of the season but is not lost on the Crimson’s rookies; instead, they use it as a source of pride and motivation.

“It’s been an honor, honestly, to play on the tennis team. Even sometimes when I don’t want to go to practice, I just try to think about how lucky I am to have this opportunity that so many people work for their whole lives,” said Block.

Reflection is especially pertinent during anniversaries, and this season being the 50th anniversary of women’s tennis at Harvard led the program’s storied history to be at the forefront of the players’ minds.

“The 50th anniversary really put things in perspective and made me even more excited about where I am today or three years ahead of me, just seeing how incredible these women are and what they’ve done,” Karra said.

That sense of family, history, and unity help fuel the fire driving the team to reach ever-greater heights. While the accolades that the Crimson collected this year were unprecedented, the team is still not satisfied.

“As a team, we want to win the Ivies next year, and we know we can do it so that is reassuring. Narrowly missing out this year definitely lights a little bit of a fire under us,” Block added.

Maintaining positive culture through roster turnover is a challenge faced by every college team, but Harvard seems prepared to face that challenge behind its mature, talented underclassmen. The Crimson will look to replace two seniors in the upcoming season: Sany Gawande and Iveta Daujotaite. These two seniors have helped oversee a shift in the culture of the program. As a result, the underclassmen expressed gratitude for the contributions of these departing seniors and are eager to carry on their legacies.

The breakthrough of the Harvard women’s tennis team has been building over recent years as talent accumulated and culture was curated. Years of knocking on the door of success finally came to fruition. The addition of ready-to-play freshmen gave the team the strength it needed to jump to another level, and the home loss to Yale led the team to quit knocking on the door and instead kick it down. A record-breaking streak and a second-place finish in the Ivy League announced that the team had arrived. And next year, the team plans on showing that this year’s run is not an aberration for the program, but a harbinger of a bright future for the program.

—Staff writer Emma De Jong can be reached at

—Staff writer Reed Trimble can be reached at

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