Buoyed by the return of captain Tyler Lu ’17 and the infusion of promising freshman talent, the Yale men’s tennis team is hopeful it can erase memories of a disappointing 2015–16 campaign.
The Bulldogs, winless in Ivy play last season, posted a strong 38–9 match record over the course of three days of competition this past weekend at the Penn Invitational in Philadelphia. The tournament, the Bulldogs’ first of the season, hosted 10 colleges, including five Ivy League schools. Yale players faced off against competitors from Brown, Furman, Georgetown, Navy and William and Mary.
“In close matches we were confident we would win, and we played well in big points, which bodes well for the future,” head coach Alex Dorato said.
In eight three-set matches over the course of the weekend, the Bulldogs won five, indicating their comfort playing in tight contests.
Lu, a two-time All-Ivy First Team selection who missed much of last season due to a wrist injury, returned to action on Friday with a tense, three-set victory over William and Mary’s Aidan Talcott, 7–6, 3–6, 1–0 (11–9). The Irvine, California native is the No. 94-ranked singles tennis player in the nation, according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. On the second day of the tournament, Lu cruised in his singles match against a competitor from Georgetown, 7–5, 6–2, while he narrowly lost in three sets on the third day of competition to Furman’s Adam Steryous.
“It felt amazing. I think any athlete who has been out for an extended period of time can attest to the fact that you never really realize how much your sport means to you until you’re forced to take an involuntary break,” Lu said.
Despite Lu’s winning record, Dorato said Lu still “needs more time” to recover from the injury and that his wrist is not yet at 100 percent though it should improve as the season progresses. Lu also acknowledged that he does not expect to be at full strength quite yet.
While Lu looks to offer senior leadership, three freshmen debuted at the invitational and found quick success. Dylan King ’20, Ryan Cheng ’20 and Andrew Heller ’20 lost a combined one match over the weekend, with King and Cheng posting 7–0 and 5–0 records, respectively, between singles and doubles matches.
King was thrust into adversity early on, facing a 5–8 deficit in the third-set tiebreaker of his first match. Given the circumstances, the freshman demonstrated tremendous poise as he won the next five points to rally back and take the victory.
“The freshmen are going to be critical,” said Dorato, who expects at least one of the three newcomers to make the starting lineup. “We are counting on them to step up.”
The first-year players were fully incorporated into the lineup from the outset over the weekend, with the freshmen having the opportunity to benefit from playing alongside Yale’s veterans. On the first day of play, Photos Photiades ’17 and King teamed up to soundly defeat a William and Mary doubles team, 6–2.
Lu is joined by three other seniors to lead the Bulldogs this season. King said that the captain stressed the importance of focus and persistence prior to the tournament.
“[Lu] told us that no matter what the score was, to fight for every single point,” King said. “My strategy was to stay strong mentally and not give my opponent any easy mistakes.”
The Bulldogs first faced William and Mary, hoping to avenge a close 4–3 loss against the school suffered last January. Six out of eight Elis won their singles matches, while the two schools split the four doubles contests. Yale’s doubles pairings fared better in match-ups against Navy, sweeping all four matches.
These winning ways continued on Saturday, as the Elis dominated opponents from Georgetown and Navy, posting a combined 18–1 record. In eight singles matches against the Hoyas, Yale did not drop a single set.
On Sunday, Yale won eight out of 12 matches before returning to Connecticut. In the only match played against an Ivy League opponent, Nathan Brown ’19 cruised to a 6–1, 6–4 victory over Brown’s Will Bader.
“I was pleasantly surprised with our performance. I felt like we are starting much better this year than we did last year so that’s very encouraging,” Lu said. “We’re still a ways away from our year-end goal though, so while this weekend was a nice first step, there are many more hours of hard work ahead of us and each step will only get tougher.”
In doubles, Dorato consistently altered the pairings over the weekend and he said that would continue throughout the fall. Yale won nine of 14 doubles contests.
Stefan Doehler ’18, who Dorato said is a “key factor” in the team’s success in doubles, did not play this weekend due to a strained oblique muscle. Doehler, who played at the No. 1 doubles slot last season with Fedor Andrienko ’18, will return to the courts this week.
The poised freshman triumvirate also gained experience playing doubles matches. King and Cheng paired up on Sunday to defeat one of Furman’s doubles teams, 6–3, perhaps forecasting a bright future for the duo.
“It was our first time playing together and we seemed to click pretty easily,” Cheng said. “[King] is a very talented player and I’m looking forward to playing alongside him for the next four years.”
The Bulldogs will look to carry the momentum from Philadelphia into their tournaments next weekend.
Lu and three juniors — Doehler, Andrienko and Ziqi Wang ’18 — will travel to Princeton for the Ivy Plus tournament, which includes all Ivy League schools and 22 teams overall, while others will remain in-state to contend in the Connecticut State Championships.