The Yale women’s tennis team is all too familiar with being “close,” but this weekend only brought it further away from Ivy League relevance.
A three-set loss at the No. 1 singles position handed the Bulldogs (7–14, 0–5 Ivy) a narrow defeat to Princeton (13–7, 4–1) on Friday, its fourth consecutive 4–3 Ivy League decision. Saturday finally brought reprieve to that spell, but with a 5–2 setback at Penn (10–8, 3–2), pushing the winless Elis further down the conference standings with just one weekend remaining in the season.
Despite the lopsided record, Yale forced six of the weekend’s 12 singles matches to a full three sets. The Bulldogs split those closely contested matches, but in dropping most of the remainder clinched the infamy of its third straight sub-0.500 season. After a sustained stretch of league dominance which saw three Ivy League titles in 2011–13, the Bulldogs have undergone a period of turmoil — plagued by a short-handed roster, coaching changes and injury trouble — that has been all the more frustrating given their relatively high level of play this season; Yale has lost just four more individual matches than the Tigers, who are tied for first place in the Ivy League.
“The league is so even this year,” head coach Danielle McNamara said. “You know you’re going to have a battle every time. … It’s just a matter of playing with a little bit more confidence on just a couple of courts at some key moments, [and] that’s something that’s not simple to work on. You have to make a decision that you’re going to play to win, rather than play not to lose.”
On Friday, the reigning conference-champion Tigers quickly surged in front of Yale, as the No. 87 tandem of Caroline Joyce and Nicole Kalhorn stomped captain Tina Jiang ’17 and Elizabeth Zordani ’18, 6–1. Princeton’s second doubles team clinched the point for the home squad, after which Jiang and Caroline Lynch ’17 each won just three games in losses at the No. 4 and No. 6 singles seeds.
Facing this 3–0 deficit, the Bulldogs staged a resurrection with victories from No. 2 Amy Yang ’19 and the streaking Zordani. A 6–2 first-set loss to Clare McKee jeopardized the No. 5 singles competitor’s unbeaten record in Ivy play, but the junior conceded just five games after that, storming to her second straight three-set triumph.
Zordani’s Friday comeback against the Tigers seemed to inspire Valerie Shklover ’18, playing Joyce at No. 3 singles. Shklover yielded the first set 6–1 but gritted her way to a 7–5 victory the following set to even the score. She completed the victory with a 6–2 margin in the final set, capping Yale’s resurgence in the match.
Locked at 3–3, the tilt would be decided by yet another three-set contest. The Bulldogs’ top singles player Carol Finke ’18 jumped out to a 6–2 victory, but Katrine Steffensen won the next two frames to puncture Yale’s rally and condemn the team to the familiar 4–3 loss.
“Katrine played really well the entire day,” Finke said. “I definitely like playing longer matches and thinking about different strategies. Obviously I’m disappointed I didn’t come out on top, but there were a lot of positives and I learned what I need to work on … in practice this week.”
The Bulldogs seemed primed to reverse their fortunes at Penn on Saturday when they seized the doubles point with wins in the second and third seeds. The point hinged on a razor-close No. 3 matchup, in which Lynch and Sunday Swett ’18 earned a 7–6 tiebreaker to edge the Quakers’ Marta Kowalska and Luba Vazhenina.
Though Zordani snapped her perfection on Saturday in a 1–6, 6–2, 6–3 loss in the No. 4 singles position, she has been a rare source of optimism for the Bulldogs this year.
“Since I’ve been playing more matches, I’ve gotten more experience competing and I’ve been learning a lot,” Zordani said. “I think I’ve been doing a much better job at competing this year and problem-solving on the court, which has helped me pull out long matches and tiebreakers.”
Close matches again defined the contest, with three of the six singles clashes decided in three sets. Yale competitors won the first frame of each of these matches, but only No. 5 Lynch could regain her advantage after dropping the second set. By the time her match had finished, Penn had already secured enough points on other courts to clinch the win.
The Quakers thrashed Yale in the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 6 singles slots, as Penn combined to relinquish just four games over six total sets.
“[Close matches] usually come down to a few points, so it’s about who is able to take care of the fundamentals really well and execute on important points,” Zordani said. “Our team has had a lot of three-setters and close matches, and I think that just goes to show how competitive the league is. Every Ivy team is pretty even this year, and every match is going to be close.”
Still winless through five conference matches, Yale is now realizing just how consequential that small margin can be. The program will try to salvage its season — and duplicate its 2–5 finish in 2016 — with matches against Cornell and Columbia at the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center this weekend.