Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mid-Season Turbulence

Last Saturday afternoon, the Crimson netters were stuck at LaGuardia with tennis bags strewn across the concourse and guys pouring over books due to delays caused by severe rain and winds that pelted NYC. We were on our way to Anderson, South Carolina to play against Clemson University, led by head coach Chuck Kriese, in the final season of his legendary career. Our plane ride from Boston to NYC shuffled side to side like Leyton Hewitt covering the baseline. Fortunately we landed safely at LaGuardia despite some rattled nerves. Looking back over the last few days, we have had some disappointing results. We fell to #51 ETSU (5-2) and #7 Michigan (5-2). Those matches felt a little like our plane flight – upsetting and turbulent. The Wednesday night loss to ETSU (East Tennessee State University) was the toughest to swallow. The Bucs from Johnson City, TN were firing on all cylinders and caught us on the defensive from the start. Once we lost the doubles we didn’t have any wiggle room and couldn’t mount enough of a comeback. In singles, Alexei Chijoff-Evans found his grove and won in a tough three setter while “Colonel” Clayton continued his winning ways by downing Serrano at #2 in straight sets. But #1 Kumar, #4 Nguyen and #5 Omodele-Lucien lost in three. It was the nadir of the season. We held a long team meeting in which we put everything out on the table – an exorcism of sorts – so that we wouldn’t have to go through that kind of match again. We redoubled our commitment to be aggressive and put pressure on our opponents.

On Friday night, in front of the largest Murr Crowd in recent history, Harvard battled the #7 Wolverines. We gave away 20 large pizzas and 10 shirts in an effort to pull off all the stops. Several alums were in attendance to watch the exciting duel. Paul Palandjian ’85 pumped his fist and shared his enthusiasm with the boys. Todd Meringoff ’96 and Mitty Arnold ’97 were joined by Scott Denenberg ’07. Debbie Goldfine ’85 joined the chorus along with her daughter Isabel whose artistic posters with words of encouragement adorned our team room door.

Michigan has three nationally ranked doubles teams and was certainly the strongest doubles we have faced this season. We tried some new combinations and might have found some strong teams that with a little more polishing might fill the bill. The nationally ranked duo of Kumar and Ermakov fell 8-6 after a slow start but Michael Hayes and Dan Nguyen played their best doubles to date in a close loss at #2 against UM’s team (#7 in the country). The freshman duo proved that if they can shore up their loose errors they might become a force at #3. We lost all three doubles to go down 1-0.

Here are some of the best doubles points v. Clemson: 

In singles, we have proved steady at the top of the line-up with a rotating Kumar and Clayton that have proven a tough 1 – 2 punch. Against Michigan, both players were on form and pulled out tough wins. Kumar, at #1, won in three sets after losing a close first set breaker. Ashwin was able to put constant pressure on the forehand wing of Michigan’s Maravic by chip-charging and serve and volleying to expose the small weakness. It was also a valuable lesson for Ashwin to learn how to keep pressure off himself by putting the weight of the point on his opponent. It is hard for anyone to come up with four passing shots in one game – especially deep into the third set. Clayton slayed Goliath at #2. The Wolverine Scoczynski was 6’ 6” and 250 lbs who we playfully nicknamed “big-country.” The giant not only had a rocket launcher of a serve, he also had a ICBM for a forehand. Fortunately, Clayton never wavered and used his own nuclear forehand to move his opponent corner to corner.

But – that’s where the good results end. At #3, Michigan’s Jung, the big 10 Indoor Singles Champ and superstar freshman, was too sharp and athletic for Harvard’s Ermakov. At number four, Dan Nguyen was felled in a long three setter by a tough Mazlin despite finally finding his range in the second set. For the two freshmen at #5 and #6, it was the proverbial “learning” day. Aba Omodele-Lucien lit up the crowd with his dazzling first set but failed to deliver the knock out blow and found himself down for the count in the third set. “Big Bird” Alexei Chijoff-Evans was captured and caged by his freshman counterpart from Michigan in straight sets.

The Michigan match was a step in the right direction but not far enough to earn a victory.

On to Clemson…

After our long flight, we arrived at our hotel near Clemson late on Saturday night. We had only one day to hit outdoors and find our range. The match was early, at 10am, and we knew that it would be a litmus test of our ability to play under outdoor conditions, something most of the guys hadn’t done in a few months. There would no “perfect tennis” and everyone would have to muster up the competitive fire to overcome the conditions and a scrappy Clemson line-up.

With the accent on first serves and stingy return games, our doubles finally looked better. The new combinations seemed to produce lots of energy and complimentary game styles. At #1 doubles, Kumar and Ermokov made a statement 8-4. Ermakov’s improved range at the net made holding easier on Kumar’s serve. Kumar experimented with standing back on returns to good success. At second doubles, Hayes and Nguyen, a newly minted team, showed how well they can work together. They are a strong returning team and showed improved finish at the net. They won by 2-breaks 8-3. With the doubles clinched and the freshman duo up 7-3 it looked like our second doubles sweep of the season. But, like rookies, their momentary relaxation proved fatal, and after two give-away service breaks, they fell in the tie-breaker (required at 7-7 instead of 8-8 once the doubles point is decided. Once you hear the singles results, you might conclude that they learned something from letting this one get away.

Up 1-0 going into singles, Clemson battled back capturing the first singles point of the day at #3 as Boryachinskiy defeated Harvard’s Sasha Ermakov in straights. Ashwin Kumar, at #2, put the Crimson back in the lead with his slicing and dicing game that left Clemson’s Fleck tied in knots and shaking his head. But Clemson retaliated with a rock-solid performance by their number one who downed Chris Clayton by out-rallying the maestro at his own game. With only three matches left, freshman Alexei Chijoff-Evans, playing #6, regained his balance after losing the first, to win in straights and to put the Crimson one match from victory. Alexei refused to lose and gritted out a win without his A-game. Finally, with two matches left, Dan Nguyen kept things going deep into the third, creating more pressure on Clemson in the remaining #5 match, where freshman Aba Omodele-Lucien was trying to come up with the coveted fourth point. His high bounding kick serves (reminiscent of Albert Chang) and big forehand were the right combination to solve his match draught and his heavy ground strokes and attacking forehands never allowed his opponent any breathing room. After serving it out, he turned to his teammates, raised his hands in celebration, gave a gladiator’s salute on his chest, and then turned to shake hands with his worthy Tiger warrior.

It was a satisfying - and much needed - win. Afterwards, retiring- but never retiring - Coach Kriese took us to the most popular sports bar in South Carolina for lunch, and shared a few pithy pedagogical gems, for which he is well-known. We learned that points should be ended with a period, not a comma or an exclamation point. We were happy to return to Cambridge with a much needed win…period.

Special thanks to Will Guzick’s father, who hosted the entire team for a sumptious dinner (in the absence of Will’s mom and his sister, Alice, who were away at the Spring Nationals) on Sunday. I’m afraid the secret is out on his competence as a host and chef! He will no longer be able to plead “nolo contendere.”

Next Thursday, March 20th, the day before we leave for California, we’ll take on St. John’s at the Murr Center.

It's Tax Time! Get tips, forms, and advice on AOL Money & Finance.

No comments: