Just over six months ago, men’s tennis looked like a talented but directionless squad whose top-flight potential went too often unfulfilled. Steven Chen ’18, captain Mike Liu ’17, Tiago Eusebio ’18, and Joachim Samson ’18 were all upset in the early rounds of the ITA Regional Championships on Oct. 1. Captain Cam Daniels ’18 struggled in doubles with Cam Hicks ’17, and failed to crack the back end of the singles lineup, where he had hoped to earn a spot. Princeton Carter ’20 showed flashes of his potential throughout the season, highlighted by a massive upset of Middlebury’s Hamid Derbani, but struggled with consistency and was at times blown out in ostensibly winnable matchups. These six certainly did not seem like a viable singles lineup for a top NESCAC team, much less a national championship contender.
This spring, any of the fall’s lingering doubts and trepidations have been emphatically shattered. The singles lineup has evolved above and beyond what Head Coach Mike Fried could have intended. They have typically been the favorite from top, where Chen has a 7-2 record at No. 1, to bottom, where Carter is 7-1 at No. 6.
Doubles has arguably been even stronger. The Cardinals have exited doubles play with a deficit just three times—each in matches that turned into victories—and have yet to be swept. At ITAs in October, none of the current doubles teams had been formed. Now, as Liu said in March, their historical weakness is turning into an asset.
Over the past week, the Red and Black stayed red-hot, extending their win streak to nine and then ten games with wins over No. 20 Tufts and Trinity, respectively. With No. 4 Bowdoin’s loss to No. 1 Middlebury and No. 8 Wesleyan’s strong week, the Cardinals move into a tie for first in the conference with the Panthers, who they face on Sunday (April 23) with the NESCAC top seed potentially on the line. The advantages of the first seed compared to the second are substantial; the drop off from the NESCAC’s current third seed (Bowdoin) to its current fourth seed (No. 13 Amherst) currently appears to be fairly stark, giving the two seed a distinguishably more difficult path to the finals, assuming that the first-round favorites can avoid upsets.
The team left Medford, Mass. with a win over Tufts in pocket, but a subtle air of discontentment nonetheless. The Cardinals were fairly heavily favored against the Jumbos, who are now 5-6 overall, but fell into an early hole which they were only narrowly able to climb their way out of.
“We didn’t play our best tennis,” Fried told the Wesleyan Athletic Department.
Chen and Daniels cruised to an easy doubles win, but were frustrated to find their teammates trailing as they exited their match. Eusebio and Win Smith ’18 dropped a marathon rubber, while Liu and Jake Roberts ’17 saw their win streak snapped in a loss to Zain Ali and Rohan Gupte, who also play No. 1 and No. 2 singles for Tufts.
Chen sailed effortlessly past Ali in singles, 6-2, 6-1. Samson and Carter also recorded expeditious victories, leaving the score at 3-2 in favor of the Cards with three matches to play. Daniels, after a long first set, pulled away to finish 6-4, 6-3, clinching the Cardinal victory. On the remaining two courts, Eusebio and Liu found themselves locked with their respective opponents at a set apiece. The Portuguese prodigy ultimately fell 10-6 in tiebreak, while Liu ran out of energy and recorded his second loss to Gupte on the day, bringing the final score to 5-4.
“[Gupte] is a fierce competitor and a great sport, but I definitely hope that I get to play him again so I can beat him,” said Liu.
Though some Cardinals may have been disappointed by the margin, every conference win brings them one step closer to a NESCAC title, especially those against ranked opponents like Tufts. The match also marked an auspicious start to the Red and Black’s season-ending road trip.
“It’s always nice to get a big win on the road,” said Daniels. “Tufts is always competitive so it’s nice to start our long road stretch with a quality win.”
The team entered the Trinity match with well-placed confidence; Trinity has just one NESCAC win in 2017, a 6-3 comeback win over Conn College, whom the Cardinals obliterated 9-0. Given the Bantams’ relative strength in singles, the Dirty Birds hoped to jump out to an early, and hopefully insurmountable lead.
Their 3-0 sweep of doubles was about as insurmountable as it gets. At No. 1 and No. 2, the usual pairings of Liu-Roberts and Eusebio-Smith cruised to comfortable margins of victory. Chen and Daniels vacated their typical perch at No. 3 doubles, making space for the duo of Hicks and Greg Lyon ’17. In sync on and off the court, the roommates fought through distractions to secure an 8-5 victory. The raucous home crowd did extensive research on Hicks, and lobbed insults at the senior that included expletives, lewd comments about his family members, and criticisms of his iconic arm sleeve.
“It was a pretty unique match due to the intensity and unorthodox tactics that their home crowd brought,” said Hicks. “I thought that as a team we really came together and showed them what Cardinal pride is about.”
There was similar confidence heading into the singles portion of the afternoon, where Chen, Daniels, and Carter have been especially hot. Carter was audacious enough to gaze into his crystal ball and forecast his own victory, which would improve his personal record to 8-1 on the season.
“I think I can [win],” Carter said in advance of his match. “I’ve been putting in the work and have relied on my faith. Now it’s just time to execute.”
This prediction proved prescient, as the prophetic Prince picked his opponent apart to a tune of 6-0, 7-5. The remainder of the singles matches went just as smoothly, despite inclement weather that forced the event indoors, as the Dirty Birds swept their winged brethren for a 9-0 victory.
“It started raining in the middle of singles so we had to move indoors,” said Chen. “At least for me it definitely took a few games to adjust to the surface but I’m happy that I was able to close out the match and get the win. Trinity is always a good team so it’s great that we were able to compete so well today given the challenges.”
With just four matches left in the regular season, Wesleyan’s schedule is heating up, and hits a boiling point this weekend (April 22-23). On Saturday, the Cards face No. 13 Amherst and then travel to Vermont for Sunday’s marquee showdown with Middlebury. To close out the season, they face Bates (April 29), who has teetered on the precipice of a national ranking all season, and then face the NESCAC’s other primary tennis titan, the Bowdoin Polar Bears. A 4-0 record over this period is ambitious but attainable, and would cement the Cardinals’ claim as a contender for the title of best team in the country.
“They’re big matches,” Liu said. “Like we’ve been saying all year, we’re going to go out there and make a statement.”