No. 14 Harvard men’s tennis, who recently came off of an undefeated season in Ivy League play, an Ivy League Championship victory, and a first round win in the NCAA tournament to Monmouth, faced off against No. 18 Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday, May 7, at the Murr Center in Cambridge, M.A. Knowing it was a win-or-stay-home scenario, the Crimson stepped up to the plate, and while they failed to secure the team victory, they stayed in it until the very last point.
Harvard entered into an immediate slugfest with the Cardinal in doubles play. Junior Steven Sun and No. 38 sophomore Henry von der Schulenburg first dropped on court three to a Stanford duo, while the No. 42 ranked duo of (individually ranked) No. 66 senior captain Brian Shi and first-year Daniel Milavsky took on the No. 41 ranked duo from Stanford in a back-and-forth fight. Shi noted that although this was one of their toughest doubles matches of the season, they stepped up to the plate and were able to deliver on everything they had been working toward.
“Yeah honestly, I think that was one of the best matches we played all year,” the senior captain said. “They made some unbelievable shots but we knew as long as we kept our foot on the pedal and maintained that fire that we were eventually going to get a break, and eventually we did. That’s how college tennis works, in doubles it can be just one or two points that make the difference.”
Shi and Milavsky closed out their match by a score of 7-5, leaving it to No. 60 junior Harry Walker and sophomore Ronan Jachuck to secure the doubles point. Walker and Jachuck faced off against even stiffer competition, the No. 25 ranked pair Arthur Fery and Alexandre Rotsaert, and found themselves similarly playing down to the wire. The ball failed to land consistently on the right side of the paint for the Crimson, though; Stanford closed it out with a 7-5 victory, snatching the doubles point from Harvard and putting them up 1-0 in the match.
Being down a point after doubles was not a position that the Crimson had found itself in very much recently, as it secured the doubles point in seven of its previous eight team matches. Even so, it felt like the team was still in a good position to stay in the match and rebound.
“Since this was such a big match, there was really no time to be down or discouraged,” Shi said. “I think we were all feeding off the energy from the crowd, so none of us were really that down; we were ready to move to singles.”
After two sets, however, Harvard found itself in an even bigger hole, as Jachuck dropped his match on Court 4 to No. 78 Alexandre Rotsaert, 2-6, 0-6, putting Stanford’s lead to 2-0. Still, the energy in the Murr Center was changing. On all five other courts, the Crimson was up a set, and it seemed as though the momentum had shifted Harvard’s way.
Just as quickly as Jachuck was defeated, No. 60 Walker took down No. 112 Axel Geller in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3. Walker’s emergence this season has been one of the many bright spots for the Crimson, and paved the way for the team’s tournament berth. Not long after, Milavsky took his opponent to set three, finishing his last set in dominant style, ending his match 6-1, 4-6, 6-0. Harvard was now back in it, having tied things up at 2-2.
“It was encouraging to see on one court we won a big point and you hear the crowd and then feed off of that energy even if you’re on the court over, and it goes all the way down, from court one to six,” Shi said.
Von der Schulenburg subsequently followed up with a tough three-set loss to No. 15 Fery, 6-1, 3-6, 2-6, putting Stanford back up, 3-2.
Then, the court became quiet enough to hear a pin drop. There was a feeling of desperation, but also exuberance and excitement that you could almost taste in the air; you could cut the tension with a knife. This was the scene near the end of the match. Deep into singles play, his back against the wall, knowing his team was down 2-3, Sun battled to the finish in the third set on court six.
“When I looked over and saw [Sun] was closing in on the third set, honestly I knew he was going to win that,” Shi said. “The guy is so clutch, he’s put in so much work, he’s such a confident kid, and I absolutely knew he was gonna pull away. I kept seeing some insane points being played there, and so it was very motivating on my side of the coin.”
After countless deuce points, it seemed as though neither Sun nor Stanford’s Timothy Sah would pull away. Yet the junior kept fighting, eventually closing out his match with a final score of 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. Once Sun sealed it on the final point, the Murr Center erupted in a thunderous roar as the Crimson finally closed the gap in the overall team match and tied it up at 3-3.
“That was one of the most amazing atmospheres I’ve ever seen at the Murr Center, and in all my four years I don’t think I’ve ever seen the courts that packed and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it that loud,” Shi said.
After Sun’s match, the lone ongoing match was between Shi and No. 80 Max Basing. As in the Ivy League Championship match, the senior found the team’s fate once again resting on his shoulders.
Shi and Basing were dead-even after two sets, trading identical blows and each securing a 6-4 set victory. Almost every point was a grueling rally for both players, as neither were making many unforced errors. And by the end of the second set, the exhaustion was starting to set in for the senior captain.
“After I dropped the second set, I went up to [Coach Andrew Rueb] and was like, ‘Coach, I think I’m starting to cramp up a bit, I can feel it in my legs,’” Shi said. “It was strange because in my head and my heart I felt like I could go forever, but my body was starting to give up on me.”
Despite his ailments, the senior did not back down. In fact, as he noted, he started playing even harder in the third set, hitting the ball with more force and going for bigger shots, in part because he wanted to avoid longer rallies, but perhaps even more because this might have been his final tennis match of his collegiate career.
The strategy was working for Shi, as he found himself up 5-3 in the set, on the verge of sealing his match and securing a spot for Harvard in the Sweet 16 of the tournament. But, the senior lost multiple match points, allowing Basing to even the set once again. Basing then took a small lead, and then after the longest and perhaps most spectacular rally of the entire match, Shi went down with what looked to be a lower leg injury. After a few minutes, Shi got back on his feet, although this time with a noticeable limp. To finish the match he would need to play completely handicapped.
“I think if you’re that close to finishing, I just had to do it for myself and for my teammates, to prove what I had in me,” the senior captain said. “It was obviously very difficult and hard to accept that that was how it was gonna end, but honestly I’m proud of myself for getting up there and actually leaving it all on the court.”
Shi gutted out the last few points, as Basing took advantage of Shi’s present immobility and closed it out to win the overall match for Stanford, 4-3. Shi hung his head in disappointment, but was quickly embraced by all of his teammates and coaches, once again reminding him of the amazing season he had just been a part of.
“It’s been incredible, I wouldn’t have traded this experience for any other in the world,” Shi said. “Through the good times, and the bad times, the guys have always been there for me, the coaches have always believed in me, and I think that has helped me so much in becoming the person I am today.
While the season did not end the way it had hoped, the Crimson built a foundation for success that will surely last for years to come; as Shi notes, he is the sole graduating senior and all other five starters, in addition to new recruits, will hold the helm next season. There are feelings of hope, energy, and excitement in the program that Shi remarks will no doubt lead to big things.
“I’m very, very grateful that I’ve been a part of this journey, and it really is not the end for these guys,” the captain said. “I’m so hyped to see where they go in the next few years.”
-Staff writer David Aley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.