Men’s tennis opens Ivy slate at home against defending champs

by Alexander Agadjanian | 4/2/15 6:01pm

This weekend, the men’s tennis team will commence the Ivy League slate of its 2015 season. The Big Green, ranked No. 50 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, will have the home-court advantage as it looks to build on a strong 9-8 pre-conference record heading into Saturday’s match against No. 28 Columbia University and Sunday’s match versus No. 55 Cornell University.

On Saturday, the men will face one of its strongest opponents — the Columbia Lions. A traditionally strong conference contender, Columbia has won the Ivy League title three times in the last six years and enters this season as reigning Ivy League champions. Currently, the Lions hold a slightly misleading 8-5 record — the team had to wade through a cutthroat schedule that included contests against four schools currently ranked in the ITA top 10, all of which resulted in losses.

Columbia nevertheless starts conference play as one of the early favorites, led by senior Winston Lin, who has spearheaded one of the most successful eras in the program’s history. So far in his final season, Lin has posted a 22-8 overall record and is ranked 21st in the country in ITA singles. The Lions also field a strong doubles pairing in seniors Ashok Narayana and Max Schnur, who slotted in at 26th in the latest ITA rankings.

“[Columbia’s] coach, Bid Goswami, has done a great job — he’s been there for [33] years,” men’s head coach Chris Drake said. “They’ve always been good and in the last few years have really set a high bar in terms of the level at the top of the league, so they’re definitely a tough challenge.”

After Columbia, the Big Green will encounter visiting Cornell (8-6, 0-1 Ivy). Cornell sophomore Chris Vrabel has provided consistency for the Big Red at the bottom of the ladder, accumulating a 10-2 record this season in singles matches, the best mark for Cornell. A Feb. 22 meeting against No. 24 Northwestern, which concluded in a 2-4 loss, represents the toughest match the Big Red has played this season outside the conference.

Both Columbia and Cornell have already begun their own Ivy League campaigns against one another. On March 28, Columbia defeated Cornell in the Dick Savitt Tennis Center by a score of 6-1, with the Big Red’s only victory coming in the No. 4 singles match. The loss snapped a previous four-match win streak for Cornell, and it got Columbia back in the win column after two consecutive losses to powerhouse teams — No. 1 University of Oklahoma and No. 7 University of Southern California.

In terms of preparation for this weekend’s matches, Big Green players have focused on themselves and their own performances more than attempting to adapt to how their opponents might play.

“The focus for the whole season [has been] not to think about anything else, just what we can control,” Dovydas Sakinis ’16 said. “I think we did a really good job [of that], especially in our last matches, and we still try to do this every practice, just do whatever we can do best and not think about who we play. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the net, you just play your game, try to control things you can control.”

Prior to the Ivy League opener this weekend, the men experienced one of its most challenging preseason schedules in recent memory. The Big Green stood at a 13-4 record at this point last season compared to their 9-8 record this year.

Drake intentionally scheduled more formidable competition before the conference play for this year, however, as such is reflected in the current 9-8 mark for the team. The Big Green has played eight teams currently slotted in the top 50 of the ITA rankings, topped by No. 10 Texas Christian University, against whom the Big Green fell 5-2.

“It’s to prepare us for the Ivy League play, but also to give us chances to play with and beat the best teams in the country because that’s where we see our program headed,” Drake said.

Heavy fluctuation has also characterized the course of the season for the team. After a strong start with three consecutive wins, the Big Green dropped its next three matches before winning five of its next six. The team then faltered in four of the following five games. Drake points to various challenging times in the schedule to explain this up-and-down trend.

“I think we played more nationally-ranked teams than any other team in the Ivy League,” Drake said. “We’ve won some matches against some good teams and we’ve lost some matches as well, a little bit of everything there. But I think we’re as battle-tested as we’ve ever been since I’ve been at Dartmouth coming into the Ivy League, because we’ve played such tough competition consistently throughout the year.”

Over spring interim, Dartmouth played five road matches in one week, of which it only won one. Rather than viewing the grueling stretch as potentially inducing attrition, Drake considers the experience as a beneficial one for his team.

“We competed really well, and the fifth match, [a 4-3 loss at Florida State University], was one of the best matches we’ve played, the last match in the seven days,” he said. “So I think the guys are in really good shape, they’re mentally tough. I’m not too worried about the physical or mental condition of the guys though, they’ll be fine come Saturday.”

In terms of top performers for the Big Green, the doubles pairing of Chris Kipouras ’15 and Sakinis has been very successful this season. The duo ranked 21st in the country in the last ITA doubles rankings, largely a result of a stellar 9-2 mark in No. 1 doubles matches. Sakinis has also led the charge in singles matches, accumulating a 9-4 record this year.

“A lot of it has to do with chemistry and believing what coach has taught us this whole year,” Kipouras said about the success. “[Sakinis] is a very good friend of mine, and when I’m playing with him, it’s a mindset where if I don’t touch the ball, I believe he’s going to give me the opportunity to win the play. I believe he’s going to play his role very well, and that encourages me to play my role. We both have a lot of trust in each other on what we can do on the court and we’re both believing in each other.”

The weekend’s matches against Columbia on Saturday and Cornell on Sunday will both begin at 1 p.m. and take place in the team’s home Boss Tennis Center. The tennis program and Dartmouth Athletics will mark the Ivy League openers by giving out free T-shirts to the first 200 fans as part of a “green out,” offering free pizza and other giveaways on Saturday and providing free Boloco for the first 100 fans on Sunday.