Friday, February 20, 2009

Oh, what a weekend for Harvard Tennis...ECAC February Madness!

By Assistant Coach Andrew Rueb

It was an epic weekend for Crimson Tennis and the matches will be registered in the book of historical lore for generations to come. For those who were there, it was like witnessing Henry V and the English army do battle at Agincourt
(see I can hear our players recounting the twists and turns to their grandchildren ages and ages hence. It was only fitting that the finish would be on President's Day - evoking Lincoln and the other great leaders who emerged in a time of crisis.

The ECAC tournament pitted the Ivy schools along with BC (who has beaten Brown, Yale and Princeton this year) and St. John's in a weekend-long tournament. Harvard hosted the first spring semester battle at the Murr Center (the tournament used to take place in the fall and acted as a qualifier for the National Indoors but now the ITA has changed the qualifying procedure and based it solely upon national ranking). To set the stage, the Crimson were looking forward to the return from a shoulder injury of the #1 singles and doubles player in the region, Captain Chris Clayton, who currently sits in the top 50 of the national rankings. The team gained valuable experience playing without their leader as others stepped up to fill the breach. But right before the tournament Chris was felled with walking pneumonia, which left him tied to his bed as if it was a medieval rack - gripped with coughing spells, chills and a total system shut-down. The boys were going to have to face this weekend on their own - and so they did.

The first and quarterfinal match on Saturday was against St. John's - a team than had handily disposed of Dartmouth the day before in the qualifying round. The stands were filled with undergrads for the "House Contest" as Jim Courier had donated 30 tickets to the finals of the Champions Cup to the undergraduate houses that brought the biggest contingent of fans. Harvard jumped out to capture the doubles point and went on to steamroll St. John's 4-0 before the match was called (the boys were up a set in the remaining matches as well). It was a good first day and left us hungry for Penn in the semifinals.

This is when things started to get interesting. Penn is a fine Ivy team with a strong top of the singles line-up. Without Chris, things were more evenly matched. The doubles point was earned by convincing wins at the top spot by Ermakov (a.k.a. the "Truck) and Chijoff-Evans ("The Green Lantern") 8-2 and at the third position, nailed down by Omodele-Lucien and Mangham 8-3. The tied second doubles matched was cut short to begin the singles. The crowd was full as it was the Boston Lobsters Day (the World Team Tennis team in Boston) at the tournament with a visit by Larry the Lobster himself.

The men from Cambridge asserted themselves early with some convincing wins. Ermakov playing like "the rock" all weekend dismantled (an injured) Boym at second singles while freshman sensation, Davis Mangham, rolled Alex Vasin. But Penn would not go gently into that good night. Adam Schwartz, their flamboyant, talented shot-maker, and probably their toughest out, downed Michael Hayes in two tie-break sets in the third slot. Phil Law, at four for the Quakers, shot down Alistair Felton - who had been riding some big wins. In a surprising upset, Jason Lin managed to outlast and hold on in the third set to take down Aba Omodele-Lucien 6-4 in the third set (the record books have it wrong). With the 3-1 lead gone, and the match now all square, it came down to the top singles spot where Chijoff-Evans was going toe-to-toe with the veteran, Hicham Laalej, from Morocco. By the time, the crowd descended upon the first court, "Lexor" had already saved 4 match points in the second set tie-breaker to somehow extend the battle to the third set. The match was marked by fierce rivalries and intense emotions. As if it was scripted, it came down to the final tiebreaker, where Alexei broke to go ahead with a 6-2 lead. With guts, belief and some big shots, his Quaker foe was no pacifist and battled back to take a 7-6 lead!!!! Alexei fought back again from down match point for the 4th time and then went ahead on his serve to win the match with a forehand winner. To celebrate, Chijoff-Evans launched his wristband into the crowd in total exuberance mixed with dizzying fatigue. We had faced death and lived another day. And tomorrow would be the juggernaut of Columbia, who had only lost one point in the tournament, and has their best team in many, many years…

Harvard vs. Penn
Singles_1. Alexei Chijoff-Evans (H) def. Hicham Laalej (P), 3-6, 7-6, 7-6(9-7)_2. Sasha Ermakov (H) def. Jonathan Boym (P), 6-2, 6-3_3. Adam Schwartz (P) def. Michael Hayes (H), 7-6, 7-6_4. Phil Law (P) def. Alistair Felton (H), 7-6, 7-5_5. Davis Mangham (H) def. Alex Vasin (P), 6-2, 6-1_6. Jason Lin (P) def. Aba Omodele-Lucien (H), 4-6, 6-4, 6-2
Doubles_1. Ermakov/Chijoff-Evans (H) def. Laalej/Law (P), 8-2_2. Hayes/Felton (H) vs. Boym/Schwartz, 5-6, DNF_3. Omodele-Lucien/Mangham (H) def. Vasin/Justen Roth (P), 8-3

The 10,000 men of Harvard were on fumes in their warm-up the following day and looked to be sluggish. Columbia was most definitely not. In front of a packed house in a battle between Obama's Ivy League connections as the Lions from Columbia entered the ring against the Crimson. Though not a heavy favorite to win the doubles point, the boys from Harlem played inspired tennis (probably fueled by last year's bitter 4-3 loss). Though Mangham and Omodele-Lucien were up a break at the third spot, Columbia's top two doubles pairs came out with guns blazing. Dropping huge serves and slapping returns at will - Ermakov and Chijoff-Evans went down by a narrow break and the Lions second pair of Wong and Schneiderman won convincingly to give Columbia the doubles point.

With energy at a low, and Columbia firing on all cylinders, Harvard retreated to their new Palandjian Team Room to regroup. On the day, I donned the retro 1985 adidas sweat-top handed down to me by Peter Palandjian himself, which brought the spirit of teams in the 80's with the likes of Howard Sands, Larry Scott, Arkie Engle, Adam Beren, Warren Grossman, the brothers Palandjian and Billy Stanley. In addition to the aura of the 80's, Clayton, like the proverbial Phoenix, had risen from his bed to come to the courts to deliver a Knute Rockne-like speech to the assembled team. With Clayton and last year's captain, Dan Nguyen, cheering like mad - the energy in House of Murr started to become contagious. Angry from their doubles losses, forgetting their fatigue, a wave of energy coursed through the air. All day long, the cheers of the fans, the great shot-making, the captains (past and present) as well as the loud "Let's go Harvard" from the players to each other, echoed and resounded over and over as the energy shifted and moved towards Harvard.

Ermakov, at second singles, downed Bogdan Borta (the runner-up to Chris at the Fall Regionals) in straights by controlling the points with his backhand and attacking the net at every opportunity. Borta never got settled and was out quickly. Then Aba Omodele-Lucien, getting back his mojo, finished off his Lion opponent at number six position in straight sets with some big serves and finally some ripping forehands. Davis Mangham was the next to add to the Crimson tally with a win over Columbia's strong freshman Haig Schneiderman in three sets. Davis was starting to feel his oats - serving bigger and ripping forehands and notching off winning volleys at the net. Harvard 3 - Columbia 1. But Columbia was not going to roll over. Jon Wong, Columbia's mercurial #1 player, loaded with talent, pulled out two tie-breakers vs. Alexei. There was no magic left in his wand on Monday. Hayes, at #3, then fell to a big serving, clutch-passing Nichifor from Columbia, 6-4 in the third set. Hayes played valiantly all weekend nearly hitting that next gear that will enable him to take down some of the best in the country. So again, everything was riding on one match. Harvard 3 - Columbia 3.

With his father in Cambridge for the weekend from Somerset, England, Alistair Felton was on court with all the pressure on his racket. Let it be known, the real magic show was only a few games earlier when trailing 6-2 in the second set breaker (and down a set), staring at 4 match points against a very solid freshman, Erin Sezgen from Turkey. Felton proceed to electrify the crowd with some gasping winners and big saves. Once the second set was won - Felton was not one to look back. Unflappable on his serves, the freshman pounded away with big first serves and huge second serves kicks. He followed up with some big forehands and finishing volleys. Once up a break in the third, with everyone watching, Alistair reveled in the fun of the moment and put everything on the line. When he closed out the match at love in his final service game, the team mobbed him on court and the elated Crimson were jumping and hollering for joy. In all, over the weekend, Harvard faced 9 team match points but were able to keep their head about them and pull out an epic victory.

The team is off today to Michigan and then to Northwestern.

Singles_1. Jon Wong (C) def. Alexei Chijoff-Evans (H), 7-6, 7-6_2. Sasha Ermakov (H) def. Bogdan Borta (C), 6-1, 6-3_3. Mihai Nichifor (C) def. Michael Hayes (H), 6-1, 4-6, 6-4_4. Alistair Felton (H) def. Ekin Sezgen (C), 3-6, 7-6, 6-4_5. Davis Mangham (H) def. Haig Schneiderman (C), 6-2, 3-6, 6-3_6. Aba Omodele-Lucien (H) def. Kevin Kung (C), 7-6, 6-2__

Doubles_1. Borta/Nichifor (C) def. Ermakov/Chijoff-Evans (H), 8-6_2. Schneiderman/Wong (C) def. Hayes/Felton (H), 8-4_3. Omodele-Lucien/Mangham (H) vs. Sezgan/Dan Urban (C), 7-5, DNF

David Fish
Scott Mead '77 Family Head Coach for Harvard 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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