PRINCETON, N.J. — Soaked with sweat after a grueling day in a Princeton dungeon, Andrew Vinci ’06 didn’t know what hit him.
It was men’s squash team captain Julian Illingworth ’06, and he was not alone. A swarm of dripping blue shirts and bandanas followed their leader, leaping over the second-floor guard rail of the Jadwin Gymnasium squash gallery onto the court — at least a 10-foot plummet. Nearly five hours after the first serve of the rainy Saturday, Vinci had railed off five straight points to put down Tiger Tom McKay in the deciding match at number eight. Memories of Princeton-induced heartbreakers, from the Ivy-deciding 5-4 loss in 2003 to last year’s blowout in the national tournament, became a little more distant as the jubilant Elis mobbed Vinci and reveled in their most stunning road upset in years.
This weekend, the No. 4 Bulldogs (10-1, 4-0 Ivy) embarked on an odyssey against their Garden State archrival, No. 3 Princeton (5-2, 2-1 Ivy), that finished in a 5-4 final, hours after the bus back to New Haven was scheduled to depart. In the stagnant heat of the Tigers’ underground facility, an entire day’s work boiled down to action on two courts, where Moshe Sarfaty ’08 and Vinci played simultaneously with their team trailing four games to three. The rousing Israeli Sarfaty would be the first to take care of business, and joined his teammates to watch the last Eli standing take the clincher, which puts the Elis one win away from their first Ancient Eight title since 1990.
Despite putting on the performance of his career, Vinci said he was somewhat confused by the wild celebration at first.
“I had no idea what was going on outside my court,” the senior said, doling out high fives and fist-pounds to passersby seconds after his match ended. “It took me a couple of seconds after Julian jumped down to figure out that we won.”
The scene in the players’ area on court level remained chaotic long after the final point was recorded. Sarfaty, his face covered in sweat and tears, emerged from a huge pack of teammates and bounced down the hallway, bear-hugging anything not wearing orange.
“This is the most, this is the biggest,” he repeated over and over before heading upstairs to greet the huge contingent of Yale parents on hand.
The jubilant celebration was more poignant because of the somewhat gloomy mood that dominated the first part of the match, only exacerbated by terrible humidity in a facility not built with large crowds in mind. The big news early in the day had been the scratching of Princeton star Yasser El Halaby from the number one spot. But after Princeton stormed out to an early lead, it looked like the Tigers would prevail without their top gun.
El Halaby, who was slated to duel with Illingworth for the eighth time in their storied rivalry, injured himself after playing in a tournament last weekend.
Illingworth did not seem too disappointed to miss out on another shot at the infamous Tiger.
“He got blisters on his feet at a pro tournament last weekend, then played on them against Trinity Wednesday,” he said. “They got infected very badly, and there was just no way he was going to able to take the court today.”
Illingworth’s two predecessors on the main exhibition court, Ho Ming Chiu ’08 at number three and Nick Chirls ’07 at number two, went down quickly against a pair of strong Princeton freshmen. El Halaby’s replacement at number one, Mexican freshman Mauricio Sanchez, looked as though he would challenge Illingworth as well. Sanchez had several leads in the first game, but Illingworth returned to form and pummeled the Princetonian in the second and third sets.
Yale head coach Dave Talbott said El Halaby’s absence had little effect on Yale’s ultimate triumph.
“El Halaby or no El Halaby, I don’t care,” he said. “Julian was going to beat anyone today. He would have beaten Yasser anyway.”
The Bulldogs’ third loss was exhausting and frustrating for both players and fans. Francis Johnson ’09 was on the brink of being swept in the nine spot, but looked primed to repeat his epic feat against Trinity, where he battled back from a 2-0 deficit to beat Bantam Simba Muhwati.
In a match marked by exceptionally long rallies and an absence of “let” calls, Johnson pushed Princeton’s Tim Callahan to an 8-8 tie in the fifth game. But Callahan banked on his ultimate home-court advantage. As the son of Tigers head coach Bob Callahan, a lifelong Princeton native, and a career benchwarmer who only started because of El Halaby’s injury, Callahan prompted the crowd to galvanize behind him as he eked out a 10-8 thriller in the finale.
At more than two hours and fifteen minutes, Talbott said the match was the longest he had ever been a part of.
Eli prospects improved greatly after a couple of quick wins on the second exhibition court that knotted the match at three. No. 6 Avner Geva ’06 was spectacular in knocking off Tiger Michael Gilman in a 3-1 tally, and No. 5 Max Samuel ’08 played perhaps the most one-sided game of the day in dismembering Nate Beck.
After Trevor Rees ’06 lost in the seven spot against Dent Wilkens to give Princeton a 4-3 lead, the crowd engulfed the second and third exhibition courts, where No. 4 Sarfaty and No. 8 Vinci matched each other through the first two games out to 2-0 leads. Fans alternated between the two matches, but after Vinci faltered and lost the third set, it became clear that the deciding play would happen on his court. The home fans, many decked out in orange polo shirts, watched in disgust as the final point sparked a mad Eli dash onto the playing surface.
While most Princeton fans wearily headed the three flights upstairs to watch the Princeton-Brown men’s basketball game, Talbott, still jumping like a schoolboy, and his brood basked in their win downstairs.
“Especially after the way Princeton played at Trinity, this is huge for us,” Talbott said. “Both of our Israelis (Geva and Sarfaty) played fantastically, but most of all, I’m so happy for our seniors.”
The Bulldogs find themselves in a similar situation as at this point last year, but with a decidedly more favorable scenario. Last year, the squad was able to beat Princeton — albeit within the friendly confines of the Brady Squash Center — and was poised for an Ancient Eight-deciding matchup against Harvard. But the Elis were no match for the Crimson in unfriendly territory in Boston and were sent packing, denied an Ivy title for the 15th straight year. But this year, the tough match may have been the one down in New Jersey, and with the dirty road work completed for Yale, in sixteen days it will be Harvard who has to steal away an Ivy title at Payne Whitney.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”15364″ ]