When the men’s tennis team steps onto the court this year with the indomitable combo of Jenga blocks and Brandon Wai ’07, opponents are bound to shudder.
Through unwavering camaraderie, a deep lineup and the top-ranked player in the Ivy League, the team plans to fight for the conference championship, players said.
“I think, by far, this will be our best season,” William Vidal ’06 said. “We’ve improved in doubles, we have unbelievable freshmen, and we have Brandon. This is what is going to lead us to an Ivy League title.”
Vidal, while not a regular in the starting lineup, provides the kind of emotion and energy on the sidelines that any teammate can appreciate. Specifically, Vidal is known to violently shake a bottle of Jenga blocks and rocks while screaming as loudly as possible in order to inspire his teammates and infuriate his opponents at matches.
While Vidal may provide fire off the court, at the crux of the team’s increased confidence on it is Wai, who has taken the Ivy League by storm. Last season, he was named to the first team All-Ivy in both doubles and singles and became the first Bulldog to capture the Princeton Invitational. In August, Wai nearly prevailed against Sargis Sargsian, ranked No. 117 in the world at the Pilot Pen Qualifier in San Diego.
“I think there’s no one in college tennis who he can’t beat,” head coach Alex Dorato said. “I think all the number one players [in the Ivy League] look at him and say to beat him, you have to be nearly perfect and have the best match you had all year.”
Although teammates described him as a natural, Wai, who now considers the forehand his best weapon, was not born swinging a Wilson racquet.
“When I was eight, I got a tennis racquet as a Christmas gift,” Wai said. “In my first match, I lost 6-0, 6-0.”
Then again, Wai has a penchant for humility.
“Brandon’s character does not speak to his ability; he’s very modest,” team captain Matthew Feldman ’06 said. “But he’s definitely the best player I’ve ever seen at Yale. And on the sidelines, this quiet kid turns into an animal.”
Jeff Dawson ’09, a new addition to the team who won the Illinois state championship last year, agreed that Wai makes a difference.
“I stayed with him when I visited, and he’s been great for me,” Dawson said. “He pushes me a lot, and I push him. It’s been great to have a guy who’s a really solid player.”
But Dorato said Wai and others he seeks to recruit have something other than raw talent in common with one another.
“I recruit players that I like being around,” Dorato said. “I pick players who are going to get along with each other, who I respect and who I believe will respect their teammates. This year, they are all great friends with each other … their level of sportsmanship is phenomenal.”
Wai is no exception.
“He’s not emotional on the court, and he’s very focused and very calm,” Dorato said. “Then you give him a short ball, and he’ll absolutely punish it.”
While Wai had a 6-1 record in Ivy singles play last spring, the team as a whole had a disappointing season, finishing 2-5 in league play last spring. In order for the Bulldogs to improve, Wai will need to have another stellar year and receive improved support from his teammates.
“Our coach has really stressed conditioning,” Chris Lawler ’07 said. “Practice is running-intensive, so we’re out there for at least three hours on the court, go to the track and run a mile under six minutes, and then another mile broken into quarters.”
Players said the team is also benefiting from a changed approach to weight-lifting, spearheaded by the team’s new trainer, Emil Johnson, in which tennis-conducive muscles are focused upon.
“I think that will definitely pay off,” Lawler said.
Hopefully for players, it will pay off as much as the four freshman recruits, whom upperclassman agreed were among the strongest in recent years.
“They are awesome,” Wai said. “We’re looking for all of them to contribute a lot.”
Dawson, who just completed his first full week of official practice, feels his older teammates were effectively making him feel a part of the team. That was just what the team’s captain ordered.
“We try to hang out as much as we can, and we try to have an event at least once a week,” Feldman said. “It’s basically like we’ve known each other forever. Each guy has a role, and each should do what it takes to win.”
Rory Green ’08, who grew up in Ireland before arriving at Yale, said the experience has truly lived up to expectation.
“It’s very much known in Ireland that you’ll either love playing in America or you’ll hate it,” he said. “But I loved it straight away … It’s fantastic to play on the team.”
Especially when the Bulldogs win.
“I don’t think people would be betting on us in Vegas, but if I had to put my money down, I’d say that we’re going to win the Ivy League this year,” Lawler said. “We’re going to be underdogs, but we’re going to win.”