Men’s tennis upsets Harvard, finishes second in Ivy League

by Alexander Agadjanian | 4/26/15 6:20pm

For the first time since 1993, the No. 46 men’s tennis team (14-10, 5-2) defeated its rival, No. 34 Harvard University Crimson (19-7, 5-2), ending with a score of 4-3 in both schools’ regular season finales on Saturday afternoon and extending the Big Green’s win streak to five. After finishing the season tied with Harvard for second in the Ivy League behind Columbia University, the Big Green finds itself in position to reach another milestone — an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than 20 years when the field is announced this Tuesday.

Playing in chilly temperatures on its outdoor courts, Dartmouth had a groundswell of support behind it to see the final match of the season. Celebrating the careers of Chris Kipouras ’15 and Sam Todd ’15, the crowd made for a raucous atmosphere and urged the Big Green players on throughout the upset victory.

“It’s been an incredible four years with this atmosphere, all these guys supporting us,” Kipouras said. “It helps fuel us to get these victories, to make these moments. They provide something else.”

To start against its conference powerhouse opponent — which was vying for its fourth-straight top-two Ivy finish — Dartmouth opened the match on an uncharacteristically positive note. For only the second time in conference play and second time in the last nine contests, the Big Green managed to win the opening doubles point and secure an early advantage.

After surging out to a 3-1 lead in their No. 3 match, Ciro Riccardi ’18 and Max Fliegner ’18, the latter of which seeing his first Ivy action, could not sustain their strong start and fell 6-4. Yet the No. 33 doubles pair of Kipouras and Dovydas Sakinis ’16 ensured the team would stay in contention, eventually pulling away in their No. 1 match to win 6-3.

And so, the doubles point came down to the No. 2 match, in which Brendan Tannenbaum ’16 and George Wall ’17 squared off against Crimson senior Denis Nguyen and freshman Grant Solomon. A tight and lengthy affair concluded when Tannenbaum and Wall were finally able to break their opponents’ serve and win the match 7-5, granting Dartmouth the key doubles victory.

The Big Green, however, saw its momentum recede when singles action kicked off. The men lost all but one of the six first sets — a 6-4 win by Riccardi in the No. 3 match — to begin its singles play. As the outlook turned more and more bleak, Riccardi continued to be the only Big Green player capturing immediate success. The freshman became the first player on all courts to clinch his match, prevailing in his second set 6-1 to extend Dartmouth’s overall match lead to 2-0. The win marked his third straight in singles play, capping a powerful finish to his first season with the Big Green.

Harvard responded with its strongest stretch of the afternoon, as Crimson players powered their way to three consecutive match victories — 6-2, 6-4 in the No. 6 match, 6-4, 6-3 at No. 4 and 7-5, 6-3 at No. 5.

The Crimson had cruised ahead to a 3-2 overall match lead, leaving Dartmouth on the brink of a loss that would effectively eliminate its chances of qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

Yet, the Big Green’s top two competitors had no plans on ending the year with a loss. After the conclusion of the first four singles matches, the team’s fate rested on the shoulders of Sakinis in the No. 1 match and Kipouras, playing his home farewell, in the No. 2 match.

After dropping a close first set 6-4, Kipouras kept his opponent, junior Nicky Hu, at a comfortable distance for much of the second set en route to a 6-2 win. The third and decisive set would not start as well for Kipouras, who fell in three straight games and found himself in a 4-1 hole. Kipouras, showing great mettle, fought back to win five straight games to notch the 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 comeback win on senior day. Leveling the overall scoreline at 3-3, Kipouras also grew his streak of singles match victories to six, having only lost one in conference action.

Kipouras said Hu was a familiar face in his section, and the Big Green athlete knew he would have to stay even with the Crimson player in rallies if he wanted to stay competitive.

“I started to find my legs, find my ground, push him back [and] put him on defense more, and I think that’s what helped me get to a third set,” Kipouras said. “Down 4-1, I just tried to focus on one point at a time, not thinking too far ahead, but just making sure [I was] focusing on the present, which was tough with the crowd we had today.”

Kipouras’ victory left the clash at the one spot between No. 54 Sakinis and No. 43 Denis Nguyen as the contest that would determine the victor on Saturday afternoon. Sakinis had to overcome an unusual circumstance for him early on in yielding the first set 7-5, but he bounced back in the ensuing set. After having to fight through a deficit, Sakinis broke his opponent’s serve to win 6-4, forcing the match to enter a tense, final set.

Sakinis ultimately overwhelmed Nguyen in this grueling set, breaking serve twice and willing his way to the precipice of victory with a 5-1 advantage. While Nguyen did all he could to mount a comeback in grabbing two games late, Sakinis responded by breaking through, holding his serve to win the final set 6-2 and top off a dramatic 4-3 comeback victory for the Big Green.

“It was tough, [Nguyen] is a good player, we’ve played a bunch of times [before],” Sakinis said. “I was a down a set… it was a situation where it didn’t look good for the team, but [I] came back. The fans helped for sure, they were just unbelievable. It kind of gave me strength in the end.”

While things had once looked dire for the Big Green halfway through the match, head coach Chris Drake said that the players shine in moments when it seems their backs are against the wall. In particular, he spoke to the impressive play shown by Kipouras and Sakinis.

“[Kipouras] and [Sakinis] fighting back was really amazing. [Kipouras has] done it so many times here, he’s a resilient kid and he’s so tough under pressure. He fights back, but then he’s also calm in the key moments and that’s what you need to be in the clutch situations,” he said. “And [Sakinis] has been in that situation before too, and to come back against a really good player and win was a great effort.”

After dropping its first two conference matches at home, the Big Green stormed back with tenacity to end on a five-match win streak and salvage its season. Drake noted that this season-long resolve has often been reflected in individual matches, like those on Saturday.

“With our backs against the wall, we’re tough, we fight back,” Drake said. “And that was the situation after losing our first two Ivy League matches. We had to stay with it, and I give the guys a lot of credit.”

With the end-of-season triumph complete, Dartmouth will now lie on the fringes of postseason participation in the lead-up to the tournament selection on Tuesday. Currently ranked No. 46 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, the team has bolstered its resume and is bound to move up in the standings before Tuesday. For a basis of comparison, the Ivy League has sent an at-large team — one in addition to its conference winner who is guaranteed a bid — to the NCAA tournament in two of the last three seasons. Harvard, with a rank of No. 31 in 2014, and Columbia, with a rank of No. 42 in 2012, each grabbed tournament spots. The Big Green should be in close range of a bid.

“I think [the win] does [give us a chance], hopefully we’ve earned it,” Drake said about his team’s tournament chances. “I think it’s going to be close. The guys did everything they could to put themselves in that position. We’ll see, it’s not under our control, so we’ll find out.”