Sunday, April 01, 2007

Harvard Men fall to Santa Clara - another 4-3 cliffhanger…

Harvard falls to Santa Clara - another 4-3 cliffhanger…

Back in Boston on Sunday after another fun red-eye flight back from San Jose on Jet Blue (thank goodness for the extra leg room!).  Yesterday's match was another one for the books.  Since nothing could get as close as the Purdue match (6 match points for us), as exciting as this match was, it was only our second most exciting loss of the year.  (The previous night's match against Fresno State was third, so we're giving everyone their money's worth!)  Yesterday, after losing the doubles point narrowly, we started well, taking four first sets.   In the end, however, we could only get three.  In the fourth, we came within two points of the win at #6.

Our doubles was a bit flat compared to our previous three matches on the trip…maybe a few signs of fatigue on our part.  It was Alumni Day for the Santa Clara Men's program, and their boosters were loud and encouraging from the start.  It was good preparation for Ivy matches.  SCU was hot off a 6-1 win over Brigham Young University, who had just beaten Stanford the day before 5-2.  No overconfidence on our part.

Santa Clara plays a highly spirited and dynamic style of doubles, which make them harder to read.  For whatever reason, we didn't respond with the same energy, which gave SCU an early advantage which they would never relinquish.  SCU #1 jumped out to a 3-0 lead.  Kumar and Ermakov never quite recovered, despite frequent opportunities to break back.  At #3, Hayes and Nguyen went down a break almost as quickly.  At both positions, our service breaking ability, usually our strength, went AWOL.  After SCU won the two matches it needed, it was some solace to see Denenberg and Valkin step up again to grab a win against a very tough #2 team.
  1-0 SCU.

We came out strong in the singles.  Things looked bright for quite a while before the metaphorical rains came to extinguish our comeback attempt.

Clayton jumped out to a lead against top 100 player Macek, and captured the first set 6-1 in short order.  At #4, 5, and 6 respectively, Denenberg, Valkin, and Ermakov took control early.  All three first sets went our way.  Valkin kept up his fine play of the trip to grab Harvard's first point, but it only pulled us to within one.  Santa Clara held a 2-1 edge, as Kumar went down in an uncharacteristic match.  Perhaps a bit hesitant in the wind, he did not come out of the blocks with the same attacking style as he has in his earlier matches.  He began attacking in the second set and looked much sharper.  But by then his opponent's confidence had peaked, and Kumar couldn't quite forced the break. Nguyen happily was finally hitting out on his ball, ripping the ball corner to corner and toe to toe with another talented freshman.  Alas, he too lost the first set by a narrow margin.

Back at #1, Clayton was still battling.  His opponent opened up in the second set, cut down on his errors, and started ripping backhand rips and finishing points comfortably at net.  Clayton's superb court speed kept him in the set  and he would not give up the set without a fight.  With SCU serving for the set at 5-4, Clayton broke back, to send the second set to a tiebreak.  Clayton held off a couple of set points, but lost the tiebreak.
It looked at that point that Ermakov might get us a third point, as he led 5-1 in the second set tiebreak, coming within two points of the win.  Clayton's third set began to look like the rubber match. 

We had the additional hope that Nguyen would even his match, as he led by a break for much of the second set.  As Clayton jumped to an early break in his third set, and seemed to have his opponent frustrated, it seemed as if we might go home satisfied.

In end, however, the script was written for Santa Clara's alumni homecoming crowd, not ours.  Ermakov's opponent refused to buckle, and seemed to grow more confident with the backing of the crowd, which participated in every way possible to throw the advantage to SCU.  Second set tiebreak to SCU.  At #3, Nguyen lost his break, and eventually lost a close tiebreak to put SCU within one of the critical fourth point.

Hope for Crimson fans kept popping up like spring crocuses back in Boston, as Ermakov took at 4-1 lead in the third, and Clayton's advantage seemed to grow at #1.  We needed both matches, but they both seemed within our grasp. 

But the constant support of the SCU fans, the inspired play of his opponent, and perhaps just a bit of déjà vu from the Fresno State match for Ermakov, conspired to turn the match gradually back in SCU's favor.  Serving at 5-4, Ermakov's opponent survived Ermakov's threat, and took the match.  Clayton's opponent, already beaten mentally, retired.

Summary of the trip:
All in all, a great trip for us.  Four matches in 6 days is a workout for anyone, and our players hung tougher for longer than many previous teams have done on this grinding trip.  Players never failed to support each other, never got down on a teammate, and stayed optimistic. The Ivies will probably be won by a team that is both lucky and good.  Such is the depth of the league that the eventual winner may well not make it through with an unblemished record. 

There may be more talented teams in the Ivies this year, but we will match any team for heart. Considering how far we have come since losing in the first round of the ECAC's last fall, we've come a long way.  We are as ready as we're going to be. 

Let the games begin!

David Fish
Head Coach of Men's Tennis
Harvard University Dept. of Athletics
Murr Center
65 N. Harvard St.
Boston, MA 02163-1012
Phone: 617.495.2695/Fax: 617.495.2700
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