It is my thesis that good living produces good tennis. While it stands to reason that efficient stroke technique, diet, coaching and conditioning are the sound fundamentals of peak performance, one cannot underestimate the benefits of living fully and deeply in the present. I believe, in part, that our best win of the season can be attributed to the wonderful time in Santa Barbara. The loving hospitality of our hosts, including the Foster and Tebbe families, and a chance to renew friendships with our friends at the Knowlwood Club (especially Jerry Hatchett) made a deep impact on the team and did manifest itself in the scorebook. The natural wonders of the mountains and ocean – those mythic entities – also worked subconsciously on the psyche of the players. And finally, the shared experiences as a team brought a new level of camaraderie in this year’s squad.
In the last two matches of the Ned Weld Spring Break trip, like a great two-act play, there was much drama and pathos. On Friday, the Crimson fought the San Diego State Aztecs at a match hosted at UC Santa Barbara. It was only fitting that we were deemed the home team on the scoreboard as, in the course of the week, we made this city our home. It was also a chance to erase our loss to UCSB on Tuesday.
In doubles, we decided to divide and conquer – splitting up our All-American caliber team of Kumar and Ermakov. “Magic hands” Kumar was teamed with the trusty Aussie Mike Hayes at the top spot while the “Defector” Ermakov was allied with freshman and fellow Texan Alexei Chijoff-Evans. The third spot was reserved for the captains – Dan Nguyen and Chris Clayton. And for most of the doubles point, the move seemed to be a success. Nguyen and Clayton won convincingly 8-4 after solving the riddle of how to hold serve. The match started with six consecutive breaks of service! When they finally went up a hold of serve, they never looked back. At #2 doubles, the Texans went up two breaks of serve and at the top spot Kumar and Hayes were leading as well. But, as Heraclitus liked to point out, the world is in a state of constant flux. Unable to hold the early break, the top tandem fell and were sacrificed to the Aztec gods – leaving second doubles as the deciding point. Unfortunately, the momentum swing continued as Ermakov and Chijoff-Evans were overtaken by the hard-charging Aztec warriors. Crimson 0 – Aztec’s 1.
The start of the singles didn’t look much better. At number two singles, Kumar fell in the first set to a terrific player at love. At the back of the line-up, freshman Alexei (“Lexicon”) was also humbled in a quick first set. Ermakov and Nguyen also lost their first frames putting us down in four first sets. Yet, something was in the air. Aba Omodele-Lucien at the number six slot regained his vigor and vitality and put on a quite a show with the only straight set win of the day 6-3, 6-4. Perhaps it was that his parents were watching his first college match that brought out his best play of the season (his father, Rick, flew in from business in China the night before and mother took the train down the coastline from Berkeley where she is a professor!). Match tied 1-1.
Things would get worse before they got better. In the second and third sets of these matches the winds picked up, making it difficult to get a clean crack at the ball, which tested the nerves of both teams. Alexei and Ashwin would rally in grand style to wrest the second sets from their formidable opponents but fell in the third, one after the other. But their success in extending their matches kept the pressure on the rest of the SDSU players. Now facing sudden-death elimination at 1-3, we had no room for error. With three matches deep in the third sets, we would need to win all of them.
At third singles, Sasha Ermakov battled his counterpart for several hours into a third set tie-breaker. Sasha was able to keep his wits about him and execute his plan of attack by forcing his opponent to hit backhand passing shots with the match on the line. The Leverett House junior won the breaker 7-4. Aztec 3 and Crimson 2.
Senior and captain Dan Nguyen has been involved in some heartbreakers in his time at Harvard so this match would prove extra sweet. Adding to the drama, his parents drove from Arizona to see their son play his first collegiate match ever! With their good karma in the air, Dan would pull out an epic 7-5 in the third victory. Dan was resilient and continued to lace big backhands to both corners. It was a big moment and a big win. The match then fell into the hands of Colonel Clayton – who had dropped the second set in a tiebreaker. The match at first singles had passed three hours at this point! Clayton did break out into an early lead and never looked back. He found his range with the forehand and was able to show off his power play from the baseline that Coach Fish has coined as “positional punishment” – referring to the way Chris kills his prey with a mix of forehand winners and a punishing barrage of painful, but not fatal ground strokes that left his opponent feeling like he was slowly bleeding to death. Clayton did bring the troops to victory over the Aztecs after winning the third convincingly 6-2. Game, Set, Match.
There were mountains beyond mountains, however, and little time to savor the victory. There was one match left on the trip, this time in beautiful Malibu against Pepperdine. Pepperdine had steadily moved up the rankings to hold the number thirteen spot nationally and would prove a worthy adversary. But the waves of Pepperdine that would break over us would not be the pipelines on Malibu’s famous beaches but the wave of energy that coursed seemingly endlessly through the Pepperdine team. Coach Fish had never in all his years of coaching had seen a team so energized and supportive. And this was not team unity forged in antagonism or antipathy, but was genuinely supportive and enthusiastic. The team would cheer after bad misses or great makes “go waves” so that their chorus was seemingly without end. The chants would bounce like ping-pong balls from court to court.
Our boys responded beautifully by playing some of the best tennis of the year. In doubles, the polished and aggressive doubles at 2 and 3 for Pepperdine were too much for the Crimson. Yet our top doubles team of Kumar and Ermakov, reunited again, downed a top 20 national team and gave us some momentum going into the singles.
But the Waves would continue to come quickly and swamped the top of our line-up. Chris Clayton and Sasha Ermakov would be the first to fall and perhaps had little left in their legs from the day before. 3-0 Pepperdine. Then Will Guzick fighting at the sixth spot fell on an off-day 6-4, 6-4 to a relentless opponent. 4-0 Pepperdine. But things did improve. Dan Nguyen forced his opponent to retire after pummeling him into submission (and an injury). After a slow start which left him down 1-4, freshman Aba Omodele-Lucien continued his winning ways by downing a fierce opponent at number five. The exchanges of groundstroke barrages were breathtaking in their intensity and duration – as both players uncorked big ball after big ball until Aba took the match in the second set tie-breaker. 4-2. At the top spot, Kumar was playing an opponent ranked top 10 in the country. Ashwin lost the first set after having five set points denied by top-level tennis. In the second, it was Ashwin’s time to turn away three match points down 6-5 to put the match into a second set tiebreaker. Unfortunately, Pepperdine got the better of him and fell 7-6, 7-6.
There were several alums in attendance at Pepperdine including Phil Tseng and his new bride, Dorothy, as well as Sy Fountaine with his wife Darlene, and son (sorry Sy, brain cramp!). Their vocal support along with the families of our team and the Crimson women’s squad (who had played early that day) helped us fight deep into the match. It was certainly a trip full of memorable moments that will be cherished for a lifetime.