Tennis teams’ strong starts halted by season cancellation

by Matt Krivan and Ethan Strauss | 4/3/20 2:05am

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Men's tennis jumped out to a 9-3 start and a No. 25 ranking before the COVID-19 outbreak cut the team's season short.

by Kyle Spencer / The Dartmouth

On March 11, the Ivy League canceled all spring sports in response to the rapidly escalating COVID-19 pandemic. For the Dartmouth men’s and women’s tennis teams, this announcement came during the season’s crescendo, as conference play and the postseason were just about to begin.

Men’s Tennis

For the men’s team, the crisis ended what could have been a historic season. Sitting at 9-3, the Big Green had earned a No. 25 national ranking and was fighting for position within an unusually strong Ivy League conference. The team had competed against some of the best Power Five opponents, coming away victorious in close 4-3 matches against Louisiana State University, the University of Alabama and the University of Minnesota.

It was these close wins against historic powerhouses — combined with a 9-0 start — that gave the Big Green confidence going into the Ivy League season and postseason. These early matches provided experiences to draw upon if and when the team found itself in a close match later on.

“We went on a pretty good streak through those first six weeks of the season, and a lot of that was due to the work the guys put in since day one,” head coach Xander Centenari '13 said. “I think we had built a great body of work that could have really helped us as the season progressed.”

The ability to win close matches against tough opponents has been a major factor behind Dartmouth’s continued success over the last few years. This year’s season would likely have been a continuation of that development, as the team set its eyes on regaining the Ivy League crown and making a further run in the NCAA tournament.

“Those are becoming realistic targets for us every year, and that’s the progression I’ve seen over the last four years, is us going from hoping to be in those positions to expecting to be in those positions,” Charlie Broom ’20 said.

Centenari said that the team’s goal was to compete in the NCAA tournament and win a round or two. 

“If we could take care of the things in our control, we fully expected to be in the tournament and have the opportunity to make a little bit of a run there,” he said. “We had never won a round in the tournament, but we had as good a shot as ever to do that.”

The news of the cancellation came suddenly for both the coaches and the players. No one expected such a drastic action, but after coming together, the team realized that the decision was for the best.

“Everyone’s reaction was initially shock,” Peter Conklin ’21 said. “The people we felt most for were the seniors — they didn’t deserve to have their season cut short like that.”

Broom said that he believes the season’s cancellation was ultimately the right decision. 

“The health and well-being of all the students, athletes, parents and spectators is more important than the sport,” he said.

The team will continue to communicate virtually throughout the spring term. Through weekly Zoom meetings, the team hopes to preserve some unity during its time apart. Coaches will also work individually with each player, reviewing this season’s matches and planning at-home fitness routines to keep players in shape.

Next season is already on the horizon, and the team is excited to resume its journey toward national prominence and an Ivy League championship. With 11 of the 13 players returning, the team is already seeing next season as an extension of this season.

“This year, more than any other year, our team’s been especially close, so I look forward to getting back together,” Conklin said.

Women’s Tennis 

The women’s team came into the season hoping to improve upon a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, which saw the team go 4-17-1 with only a single win in Ivy League competition. However, much of last year’s struggles can be attributed to a rash of injuries that left the team depleted and demoralized. Those issues largely disappeared this season.

“Coming into this year, everyone was healthy, everyone was really excited and we all were getting along well,” co-captain Allison McCann ’20 said. “It was a super positive and good environment, and I think that definitely translated into how we performed on the court.” 

Dartmouth rode this confidence to a string of early victories. In each of the team’s September tournaments — at Brown University, Harvard University and Yale University — the Big Green won a majority of its matches. This strong start was exactly what the team needed to put last year in the rearview mirror.

“It wasn’t that we necessarily did something differently [from last year] from a practice standpoint. The biggest change was we were able to have a good sense of urgency,” head coach Bob Dallis said.

That sense of urgency permeated the entire year, as the Big Green continued to improve and win matches. Specifically, earning more doubles points — achieved by winning two out of three doubles matches — became a point of emphasis as the season progressed. The Big Green ended the season with a doubles record of 46-32 (.590) compared to a singles record of 88-73 (.547). All 12 players won at least half of their doubles matches.

“It’s very important for momentum to get the doubles point,” McCann said. “We started off the year not doing so well in doubles, but we definitely started improving and winning more doubles points, which can make the difference in a match.”

Underclassmen were crucial in the Big Green’s success. Nicole Conard ’22 competed at the No. 1 singles position for most of the season and finished with an impressive 9-6 singles record. Freshmen Ashley Hess ’23, Jennifer Gadalov ’23, Chidimma Okpara ’23 and Emily Zhou ’23 combined to win 31 of their 54 singles matches. However, it was the senior McCann who posted both the team’s best singles and doubles records (10-6 and 14-5, respectively).

The Big Green hit its stride as the indoor season came to a close, winning four of its last five matches. This winning streak made the Ivy League’s decision to cancel spring sports even more disappointing for the players.

“The Ivy League was one of the first conferences to cancel the entire season, so we were all really shocked,”  McCann said. “I couldn’t really process what was happening.”

It quickly became clear that the Ivy League’s proactive decision was the correct one, as conference after conference canceled their spring seasons.

“If we’re going to be saving lives, then it’s definitely the right thing to do, no matter how disappointing it is,” McCann said. “We want to do whatever is better for the greater well-being of society.”

Despite the sting of a shortened season, the team’s success should propel it into next year with confidence.

“This year, so far, everyone has been really positive, which I think is good going into next year,” McCann said.