Instead of hosting their parents at Yale this past weekend, men’s tennis players Steve Berke ’03 and Dustin West ’04 traveled to Stone Mountain, Ga., to compete in the All-American Championships, a prestigious national tournament in which the country’s top collegiate players participated.
Based on their strong performance, Berke and West — the only Ivy League players entered in the tournament — proved the Ancient Eight’s best can stand with the nation’s best.
Last year’s Intercollegiate Tennis Association regional doubles champions teamed up again to compete in doubles, while Berke — who made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament last May — also vied for the singles title.
Berke — the No. 41 college player in the country — saw the tournament as his chance to beat some top singles players and move up in the rankings. But he admittedly lacked his normal confidence.
“At ECACs, I played some close matches against less talented players,” Berke said. “Even though they were my first collegiate matches in several months, by edging out the matches instead of winning them convincingly, I lost some confidence.”
On the first day of competition, Berke played two rounds of singles before he and West had their first doubles match.
In the first round, Berke took on Thomas Haug, an ambidextrous Swiss player from the University of Minnesota. After adjusting to Haug’s unorthodox two-handed forehand and both left- and right-handed serves, Berke got into a rhythm and defeated the Gopher, 6-3, 6-4.
Berke returned to the court shortly after his first round victory to take on the No. 14 seed, Jean Simon, a 6-foot-5-inch French player from the University of Texas.
In the first set, Berke overpowered his Longhorn opponent from the baseline to win 6-4, but he dropped the second set, 6-1.
“[Simon] adjusted to my pace on my groundstrokes and then started serving well,” Berke said. “He basically bombed serves and dominated the second set.”
In the final set, Berke changed his strategy and began rushing the net to win the set, 6-2, catapulting him into the round of 16.
“I took him by surprise — and regained the momentum,” Berke said. “After that, I basically rolled with it and closed out the match.”
After Berke’s two singles matches, he and West took on UCLA’s No. 1 doubles team — Marcin Matkowski and Jean-Julien Rojer — the eventual tournament champions.
The Bulldog duo struggled to hold serve against a team that Berke described as the best service returners he had ever played against.
Down 6-5 in the eight-game pro set, West held serve, and then the Eli team broke the UCLA pair to go up 7-6. Berke had a chance to close out the match on his serve, but the Bruins overwhelmed the Elis and won the next three games to take the match, 9-7.
“Even though we lost, we gained a lot of confidence,” West said. “It showed that we can stay with one of the best doubles teams in the country.”
The next day the Bulldogs returned to the courts, but Berke — suffering from inflammation in his shins — could barely walk.
“I played 18 sets of tennis in six days, and it took a severe toll on my legs,” Berke said.
In singles, Berke was slated to play No. 4 seed Alex Hartman from the University of Mississippi whom he defeated last May at the NCAA tournament. But after playing only four games, Berke had to retire.
“I knew I was in trouble when I couldn’t bounce in warm-ups, but I was hoping I could produce enough adrenaline to overshadow the pain,” Berke said. “But [it] was too much and he is too good a player for me to win not being 100 percent healthy.”
But Berke did not let his injury prevent him from continuing to play in the doubles draw. Because he only had to cover half the court, Berke decided to ice his shins and play through the pain.
In the backdraw, Berke and West took on Illinois’ top doubles team. Facing 6-foot-4-inch opponents with huge serves, the Bulldogs relied on their own serves to carry them through the match.
Up 7-6, the Elis had four match points but were unable to capitalize. Instead the Illini broke Yale for the first time in the match. But Berke and West immediately broke back to go up 8-7. West then held his serve to defeat the Fighting Illini, 9-7.
“Illinois was the best team we faced at the tournament,” Berke said. “I was really proud of the way we came back after choking on some match points.”
But the Bulldog duo was unable to carry its momentum with it into the next round, and the Elis lost a close match to Casey Smith and Javier Taborga of Notre Dame, 9-8 (1).
“Overall, we had a great weekend,” West said. “We proved we could play with any team in the nation, and with this experience I think we are ready to garner some great wins.”
Berke also hopes that after his spectacular performance in singles, he will shoot up in the rankings.
“The tournament probably solidified my ranking in the top 20, and that puts me in striking distance of the top five, which is exactly where I want to be,” Berke said.
The Bulldogs have next weekend off but will return in two weeks to compete in the ITA Regional Championships.