On March 22, the Yale men’s tennis team came within one set of defeating national powerhouse University of California, Berkeley, ranked No. 11 in the country at the time. Although the Bulldogs walked away disappointed with a loss, they proved to the country and to themselves that they could compete with a premiere program.
Now a month removed from this near upset, the Elis will have another shot to shock the country with two matches against nationally ranked Ivy League opponents. Yale (16–7, 2–3 Ivy) will first travel to No. 26 Cornell (19–3, 4–1) on Saturday before closing out its season with a match on the indoor courts of No. 23 Columbia (15–4, 4–1). Once thought to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the conference, the two Empire State teams showed vulnerability this past weekend in their respective matches against Harvard. Yale certainly enters this weekend as a heavy underdog in both matchups but will do so hot off a 4–1 triumph over Penn and encouraged by its past performance against Cal.
“We’re expecting tough opponents away from home, but we can definitely have a good chance of winning,” Photos Photiades ’17 said. “Harvard beat Columbia, and we feel like we can definitely pull off an upset away from home. We almost did it at Cal, and I think we can do it again.”
For Yale, the early Ancient Eight season was characterized by unfulfilled potential. Prior to games against Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton, the Bulldogs felt that they had a good chance to win each match. But across the three consecutive outings, the Elis failed to prove their mettle when it counted.
The Bulldogs finally landed in the win column with a victory over the Quakers this past Sunday. Against Penn, the Elis showcased their full array of talent, taking the doubles point and winning matches at the top and bottom of the singles ladder.
After struggling with injuries to key players such as Fedor Andrienko ’18, Ryan Cheng ’20 and Stefan Doehler ’18 throughout the season, the Elis rolled out their lineup at full strength on Sunday. Barring any injuries this week during practice, Yale will again put out its best lineup against two perennial Ivy powers.
“It’s just about getting back into a rhythm,” Cheng said after his return from injury. “Obviously, Cornell and Columbia are two of the teams at the top of the Ivy League right now, but we’re always up for a challenge to beat those kinds of teams. We just have to go out and do our thing.”
Cornell comes into its matchup with Yale on the heels on four straight conference wins. After opening its season with a lopsided 4–1 loss to three-time reigning Ivy champion Columbia, the Big Red has hit its stride.
This past Sunday, Harvard put Cornell’s claim as one of the top two teams in the conference in jeopardy when the Crimson took a 2–0 and claimed four of six first sets in singles from their Big Red counterparts. But the Cornell singles lineup showed great resolve, winning four consecutive matches to walk out of Cambridge with a 4–2 win.
The key to the Big Red’s success has been a balance in singles and doubles. Cornell’s No. 1 doubles tandem of seniors Colin Sinclair and Chris Vrabel rank No. 79 in the nation by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, and the Bulldogs’ top pair of Andrienko and Alex Hagermoser ’17 will require a stellar performance to knock off their opponents in Ithaca.
Sinclair also headlines the singles lineup at the top position while Vrabel offers experience further down the ladder at No. 4. Still, Cornell’s highest-ranked singles player competes at its No. 3 slot. Freshman Lev Kazakov has worked his way to No. 101 in the country in his first year of play and will likely find himself across the net from Yale’s own star rookie in Dylan King ’20 come Saturday.
After competing with Cornell, Yale will travel down to New York City to finish the most challenging weekend of the season against Columbia. The Lions, who had previously won 28 straight conference matches, showed their first bit of mortality in three years when they lost 4–2 on Harvard’s courts last weekend. Still, the Light Blue bounced right back with a convincing 4–1 triumph over Dartmouth.
Like Cornell, Columbia presents a well-rounded lineup that will cause issues for Yale at every single spot. The Lions’ doubles ladder is spearheaded by brothers Richard and Victor Pham, who have climbed their way to a No. 57 ITA ranking. Although the brothers fell to Harvard’s No. 66-ranked doubles team over the weekend, they are not to be taken lightly.
The Pham brothers will play alongside another strong duo at No. 3 doubles which had not lost all season until dropping a 7–5 set to Harvard. With Yale’s No. 3 team of Photiades and captain Tyler Lu ’17 coming off two consecutive losses, the clash at the final doubles position leans in Columbia’s favor heading into the matchup.
On the singles front, Columbia boasts two ranked players that will challenge the Elis’ top-heavy singles lineup. At No. 1 singles, the Lions will play No. 82 Shawn Hadavi against Yale’s No. 63 Lu in a primetime meeting of two established seniors. Right behind Hadavi, Victor Pham will bring a No. 71 individual ranking into his meeting with Ziqi Wang ’18 at No. 2 singles.
Though the road to victory will not be easy for the Bulldogs this weekend, head coach Alex Dorato is not counting his team out just yet.
“I think because we played Berkeley so close, and Berkeley’s better than both [Cornell and Columbia], the guys know they have to have their best day [to win],” Dorato said. “We need [some] of the Columbia guys or the Cornell guys to be a little off. But [victory is] definitely within the range of possibilities. We just have to go give ourselves a chance to do it.”
The Bulldogs have not beaten Cornell or Columbia since 2013.