The Yale men’s tennis team failed to collect even one conference victory in 2016. However, the remnants of a winless Ivy League campaign seem to be distant in the rearview mirror: With a victory against Brown already under their belts, the Bulldogs will look to add to their encouraging start against Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend.
The Elis (15–4, 1–0 Ivy), fresh off a second drubbing of St. John’s this season, begin their two-match weekend with a trip to Hanover. Dartmouth (7–11, 0–1 Ivy) comes into Ancient Eight play with the worst nonconference record of the eight schools, but the Big Green is just two weeks removed from a victory over No. 46 South Alabama. With three straight losses against Dartmouth, Yale is far from guaranteed a victory over its foes from New Hampshire.
Following this Friday afternoon affair, the Bulldogs will return home to New Haven to face off against the rival Crimson (13–8, 1–0) on Sunday. Currently riding a four-game winning streak, Harvard will try to defeat Yale for the second time this season after a 4–0 victory at the ECAC tournament in February.
“I focus on my players primarily,” head coach Alex Dorato said. “I feel like if they take care of how they play, and they play the way they want, they’ll be fine. If there’s something glaring in their opponent, that’s fine, [we’ll work on that]. But mostly, I want them to focus on their own game because that’s what they have control over.”
Nevertheless, there are many things that Yale’s players cannot entirely dictate. Although their nonconference resume has been characterized by impressive results, the Bulldogs have dealt with injuries to several key players.
Ryan Cheng ’20, who has missed the last four matches with a right-wrist injury, will again not play this weekend. Cheng seemed to be making good progress in working his way back onto the court, but a fall on the same wrist in San Francisco on March 17 leaves him doubtful for the remainder of the season, according to Dorato. Though Cheng was a staple in Yale’s singles and doubles lineups during the winter, the Elis have had time to adjust to his absence before the majority of conference play.
Doubles specialist Fedor Andrienko ’18, one of Yale’s top volleyers according to multiple team members, also suffered a tear in his dominant left shoulder which sidelined him for the first 18 matches of the season. The junior made a well-timed return to the lineup at St. John’s on April 1, teaming up with Alex Hagermoser ’17 to win the No. 1 doubles match.
Andrienko filled in at No. 1 doubles for Stefan Doehler ’18, who had regularly playing in the position with Hagermoser until a tweak in his back deterred him from doubles competition against the Red Storm. Still, Doehler notched a win at No. 4 singles, and Dorato expects him to be back in the lineup this weekend. Other minor injuries in this past week of preparation included a right-wrist injury to Dylan King ’20, who has refrained from hitting backhands for most of the week, and a toe jam to captain and No. 1 singles player Tyler Lu ’17.
With the injuries piling up, the Bulldogs will need to find immense resiliency against stiff competition in Dartmouth and Harvard. Along with physical durability, mental tenacity will be key to a successful Yale weekend, according to Lu.
“I think physically [the two-match weekends] … are fine,” Lu said. “But it’s definitely a bit of a grind mentally because you do know that every Ivy match is always going to be a scrap and no one’s going to give up an Ivy match.”
Yale will face deep lineups from both the Big Green and Crimson, according to Dorato. As such, every match will be extremely important, especially on the doubles front.
Harvard took the doubles point against Dartmouth on April 2 behind wins at No. 2 and No. 3 doubles, and capitalized on the early lead to win the match. Although the Crimson won by a convincing 4–1 margin, its conference foe was up one set and headed into a third set in the two matches that did not get to finish. Had the Big Green won the doubles point, the tight match could have produced a different outcome.
“We just play a lot of doubles during practice with a lot of doubles drills,” Andrienko said. “Those competitive [practices] help you to develop the right mentality and attitude during the game, so that definitely helps.”
In order for the Elis to walk away from this weekend with their unblemished conference record intact, they will have to reverse the trends of recent years. Yale has not beaten Dartmouth in three years, and has failed to defeat Harvard in its last 18 meetings.
Out of all three teams competing this weekend, Yale has been the only one to crack the Intercollegiate Tennis Association top 50 at any point this season.