Two wins. Five losses. Most ways you cut it, the Yale men’s tennis team did not have a great season. But, in accounting for injury setbacks and several standout individual performances, it becomes easier to understand why the Bulldogs’ players and coaches walked away encouraged after the 2017 season.
One year ago, the Elis were mired in the cellar of the Ivy League. A season-ending injury to captain Tyler Lu ’17 demoralized a team that ended its campaign without a single conference victory.
This season, behind the return of Lu and the emergence of key performers, including three freshmen, Yale went toe-to-toe with the best in the Ancient Eight. Even though their record does not reflect the immense strides they made this year, the Bulldogs head into the summer with a plan to make more noise in their next trip through the Ivy League.
“Every team that we played, we played very competitively,” Dylan King ’20 said. “Even though we were on the bad end of a few really tough losses, … you just have to hold it in perspective and realize that you’re going to come up on the rough end of a few of the close losses. If you keep working hard, you can turn those into wins.”
The Elis began their regular season by dominating their nonconference slate of competition. Following a promising fall season that saw two players compete at the All-American Championships and a doubles team make it to the semifinal round of the regional tournament, Yale continued its momentum with a 14–2 record against non-Ivy opponents.
The Bulldogs’ most impressive stretch of play during the year came during a 10-match win streak that spanned exactly one month and earned them a national ranking as high as No. 45. On this torrid run, Yale bested teams from both the east and west coasts, including Ivy-rival Brown, by a combined match tally of 54–10.
Yale’s No. 1 through No. 4 singles players proved themselves to be a formidable group over the course of these 10 matches. King, Lu, Stefan Doehler ’18 and Ziqi Wang ’18 amassed an astounding 32–3 record and established themselves as a reliable lineup for head coach Alex Dorato and assistant coach Christian Appleman.
With one conference win already under their belt, the Elis looked to continue their winning ways in their final six Ancient Eight matchups. Yet the Bulldogs’ confidence never quite materialized into team success during Ivy play. At the season’s conclusion, the team found itself the owner of a 1–5 record during this brutal stretch of play.
Yale played competitively in many of its conference matches but failed to live up to the potential that it saw in itself early in the season, according to the Yale coaches. Lu and King continued to play well, but Wang and Doehler fell on harder times against stiff opposition in the Ivies. Moreover, the Bulldogs dropped two 4–3 matches against Princeton and No. 26 Cornell after holding leads over both teams.
“I was very happy with how well the team competed all year long,” Dorato said. “We were winning way more than our share of close sets and three setters, and I would like to have beaten Princeton and Cornell. That would’ve really turned our season around, but I can’t complain because they were favored, and we gave them a good battle.”
For all the talk of Yale’s strong singles play, Dorato’s players struggled throughout the year on the doubles front. Injuries to key doubles contributors in Doehler, Ryan Cheng ’20 and Fedor Andrienko ’18 prohibited the Elis’ doubles pairings from forming the required chemistry for a successful doubles lineup.
“[Doubles is] a feel game,” Appleman said. “It’s a feel of your partner and what they’re going to do. We kind of lost that little bit of chemistry, and I don’t think we ever really go it back. … [Because of our injuries], we kind of lost that edge in our doubles play. … I don’t know if it hindered our development or not, but it certainly didn’t help.”
When healthy, Andrienko and Alex Hagermoser ’17 proved to be a reliable presence at the top of the doubles ladder. The highlight to their season came in a 7–5 win over Harvard’s top doubles team, ranked No. 60 in the country at the time. King and Cheng also developed a rapport at No. 2 doubles in their limited Ivy League exposure, winning two of their three matches together.
Yale’s most outstanding performances, however, came on the singles side. King won an incredible 32 matches throughout the season, which according to Dorato is the highest individual win total in at least the last three decades. The freshman headlined an strong Bulldog class which also features Cheng and Andrew Heller ’20, both of whom started regularly when healthy this year.
At the top spot, No. 63 Lu ran the gamut in the Ivy League, accomplishing an immaculate 7–0 record against the conference’s top players to emphatically cast his name into the ring for Ivy League Player of the Year. A win for the senior would give Yale its first Player of the Year honor since 2010.
Although the graduation of Lu and his fellow seniors will leave a gaping hole in the Eli lineup, the class of 2017 has laid the groundwork for continued improvements in the year to come.
“The one thing that was different about this year was the fact that our underclassmen played with the urgency of seniors,” Appleman said. “We had such good leadership from all of our seniors across the board. I think [their] attitude permeated into our underclassmen, so that their approach was also professional.”