Though it did not mean anything in the final season standings, the Yale women’s tennis team’s final match was perhaps the most important of the season.
As the afternoon wore on at the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center and the 2017 campaign approached its sunset, the winless Bulldogs found themselves in a familiar position. They were split 3–3 in matches with Columbia (5–16, 1–6 Ivy) for the fifth time in their seven Ivy League contests. No. 4 Elizabeth Zordani ’18 entered the third set of the team’s final match, and the weight of an often forgettable season bore down on her: six conference matches, six losses and just one set remaining.
When Zordani finally vanquished her Columbia opponent to earn Yale’s first league win, she capped a once-promising season that devolved into another bleak campaign for the program. After entering the Ivy League slate with seven wins in their previous nine matches, the Bulldogs (8–15, 1–6) went four weeks without the feeling of victory in spite of a number of close, hard-fought contests and off-court tumult.
“We went through a lot this year as a team, with people leaving,” Zordani said. “Regardless of what happened with the results, we’ve come a really long way as a team. It was especially special that we won this last match because it showed how resilient we are when things haven’t really been going our way. We have not had the best results, but we compete really hard, and luckily it went in our favor today.”
The win rebounded the team from its lowest point, a 6–1 debacle in which Cornell (15–6, 5–2) swept the entire singles draw on a dreary, mist-filled Saturday.
The eventual Big Red rout started with a doubles victory for the Bulldogs. The No. 2 tandem of Carol Finke ’18 and Amy Yang ’19 earned a comfortable 6–2 edge to start the action, followed by a 6–3 win from the veteran No. 3 duo of captain Tina Jiang ’17 and Caroline Lynch ’17, who typically do not play together.
After the sweet doubles moment, however, came a deluge of singles losses. One after another, Big Red competitors dispatched their Eli opponents; five of six of the matches were decided in straight sets, including wins by No. 4 Lizzie Stewart and No. 5 Mariko Iinuma to extend their perfect singles records in league play.
Entering the weekend one match behind league leaders No. 49 Harvard and Princeton, Cornell had something to play for — and it showed. With a quick win at Brown on Sunday, the Big Red kept alive its prospects of winning a share of its first-ever Ivy League championship, a title the Elis last won in 2013.
Yale, though, was spiraling in the wrong direction. After four straight 4–3 defeats opened its season, the team fell 5–2 to Penn two weeks ago in its final road match of the season. But Sunday brought sunnier skies and one final opportunity for the Elis to outperform their record, and this time, they delivered.
After dropping the doubles point — in spite of another win for Jiang and Lynch — Yale flexed its depth at singles with victories in the middle four seeds of the ladder. No. 1 Finke suffered her sixth consecutive singles loss at the top position, a reflection of the mismatches created in the roster when three key players left the team earlier this season.
Behind her, though, No. 2 Yang, No. 3 Valerie Shklover ’18 and No. 5 Lynch all triumphed, setting Zordani up for the back-and-forth clincher. The junior was no stranger to three-set matches, as this was her fourth such contest in the Ivy campaign.
“At this point in the season my body has been broken down a little,” Zordani said. “It’s a hard season. … I didn’t win the second set, and going into the third set, it just took a lot of mental strength to get that third-set win. I had to keep telling myself that I was going to win, to try to be positive.”
She split the first two sets, 6–1, 4–6, hinging the Elis’ final hope for a conference victory on her last set — a momentous 6–2 success.
For Jiang and Lynch, the career-capstone win in their final match as Bulldogs was bittersweet. Jiang’s tenure came full circle, as she played her first two collegiate seasons at Columbia before transferring. In two years as a Bulldog, Jiang’s former squad was the only team she defeated more than once.
“The past couple of years have definitely included some difficult times, but also a lot of positive times as well,” Jiang said. “I’m really grateful for many of the friendships tennis has given me since I know those are relationships that I will keep with me in years to come. I’m sad to see my time [with Yale tennis] come to an end, but also excited to move on to a different stage of my life soon.”
With the victory, Yale tied Columbia with a 1–6 record at the bottom of the conference standings.