The Yale women’s tennis team matches any other team in the Ivy League in talent. But in the decisive moments in their battles on the courts, the Bulldogs have consistently failed to execute, sinking them to the bottom of the conference with one disappointment after another.
In the last weekend of their vexing season, the Elis (7–14, 0–5 Ivy) will appeal to their seniors one final time to lead them to their first Ivy win. Both their opponents offer reminders of the strange verdicts that can result from such an evenly matched conference. Cornell (13–6, 3–2), which Yale will face on Saturday, has won the most individual matches of all Ancient Eight teams and toppled the current first-place squads, but is mired in the middle of the bunched-up standings. The following day, the Bulldogs will host Columbia (5–14, 1–4), whose only win came against Penn, the team that most handily edged the Elis this season.
“Tennis is a matter of small margins,” Caroline Lynch ’17 said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing because we’re playing good tennis all around, but hoping that this weekend we can step up on big points, hit our favorite shots with conviction and aim to swing the momentum in our favor. There haven’t been any major technical or tactical adjustments to anyone’s game — it’s about adjusting in the moment and executing when it’s necessary.”
Those small margins will produce an exciting final weekend of tennis, though Yale has long been excluded from contention. Five teams are within a game of winning the conference, and 13 of the 20 total matches have been decided by the close 4–3 margin.
Cornell has won 23 individual matches but is clumped with two other teams behind No. 49 Harvard and Princeton — an apparent injustice due to the multitude of close outcomes.
But the Blue’s relegation to the Ivy League cellar has not been arbitrary. The team has consistently squandered its opportunities with matches on the line. Head coach Danielle McNamara has urged her team all season to learn from these experiences and play more aggressively rather than shrinking from the spotlight.
“The past few weekends have been indicative of how competitive the league is this year,” captain Tina Jiang ’17 said. “All of the matches have been close, so the biggest thing this weekend is playing to win and playing with confidence.”
Given their penchant for losing key matches late, the Elis are underscoring the importance of making a strong opening statement with the doubles point.
The Big Red have found most of their doubles success at the lower seeds, with its No. 2 pairing of Mariko Iinuma and Priyanka Shah posting a 10–4 record and the No. 3 tandem of Madison Stevens and Lizzie Stewart at 9–4 in the spring season.
Despite back-to-back Ivy doubles wins, the Lions’ duos have been less than supreme: Only one of their twosomes has played together in four of the five league faceoffs, with head coach Ilene Weintraub opting to keep the pairings in flux.
“For these final two matches, I think it’ll be really important to focus on getting the doubles point to set a precedent for singles,” Elizabeth Zordani ’18 said, though she added that the team will need to start strong in singles regardless of the doubles result.
On Saturday, No. 1 singles player Carol Finke ’18 may be on the defensive against Cornell’s Marika Cusick, who has won four of five conference matches in the premier slot, three of which she earned in three sets.
Lower on the depth chart, the Big Red is armed with streaking singles players as it makes its case for the Ancient Eight title. Stewart and Iinuma are both undefeated in singles in the league, and the latter may match up with Yale’s Zordani, who has impressed with a 4–1 league singles record, mostly at the No. 5 seed.
Whereas Cornell has won the most individual matches in the league, Columbia has the ignominy of the fewest, presenting the embattled Elis with an opening to conclude their season with a win.
According to Lynch, the Lions have been one of Yale’s biggest rivals over her four-year career, and one of her top memories was in her freshman season when the then-No. 59 Bulldogs upset No. 33 Columbia. The 5–2 road win catapulted the Elis ahead of the Lions en route to a second-place finish in the conference with just one loss — the last time Yale finished above 0.500.
After McNamara coached the current senior class that season, she left the team for a job at the University of Texas for two years before returning at the start of the fall 2016 campaign.
This rollercoaster stint will be on the minds of Lynch and Jiang, both of whom will play their final matches in blue this weekend — and after an ill-fated season, one final win would provide some fitting poetic justice for these veterans.
“It’s been a crazy journey for sure,” said Lynch, who cited Yale’s upset over No. 34 William & Mary in her sophomore season as another highlight. “Finishing with a win this weekend would mean a lot, especially against Columbia.”
Both Saturday and Sunday’s matches will start at 1 p.m. at the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center.