After a $1.5 million renovation of the Vine Street tennis courts, the racquet-swinging Cards are back and looking to build on last year’s tremendous season. In the spring of 2017, the men’s tennis team, who ultimately ranked fifth in the nation, reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, falling to number three in the nation to the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. The women’s team, ultimately ranked eighth in the nation, couldn’t overcome a fifth-in-the-nation Bowdoin, losing in a tight 4-5 contest. But, professionally-ranked Eudice Chong ’18 made sure to take home a third consecutive national championship in singles, not to mention the national doubles title with her partner, Victoria Yu ’19.
Even after these marvelous results, the Cardinals are back and are looking to fly up the pecking order. To do so, both sides have picked up a few valuable first-years, courtesy of master recruiter and last year’s Division III coach of the year, Mike Fried. Coming from Portland, OR., Andrew Finkelman ’21 is the men’s team’s most notable pickup—he was ranked 67 in the nation coming out of high school, making him the highest ranked Wesleyan tennis recruit ever. On the women’s team, Polina Kiseleva ’21 and Zoe Klass-Warch ’21 are both looking to make an impact after their successful junior careers, having been ranked 74 and 87 in the nation, respectively.
Klass-Warch is the sister to a current senior on the women’s team, Helen Klass-Warch. Although sibling rivalry is often a powerful beast to be reckoned with, it has not been a factor with the sisters.
“Having my sister, Zoe, on the team is amazing,” Helen said. “We grew up playing together and it was lucky to always have a practice partner/doubles partner around. Having someone who knows me so well as a person and as a player helps me stay grounded and relaxed during practice and matches, and we’re so close so that the transition wasn’t that weird for either of us.”
Even with these spectacular additions to the lineup, college tennis is a team sport, not an individual one. Isolated talent can be nice to admire, but it often is not enough to win the vicious duels that accompany the spring season. Consequently, even though the tennis team is not exactly a corporate enterprise, team building and bonding are crucial.
“One of our big goals of the fall season is to solidify an incredibly supportive team culture, where we’re all working for each other in pursuit of a common goal,” Fried said.
Luckily for the new team, the fall season consists just of individual competitions, so there is time to adjust to personalities and to develop the new lineup for the spring. And, of course, there are opportunities for those special, extremely gifted players who shine when all the pressure is on. It’s no surprise, then, that these strong and speedy Cardinals have flown their way to success in the few chances that they’ve had.
At the women’s MIT Invitational in Cambridge, Mass. on Sept. 15 – 17, Chong and Yu lost only six games en route to the doubles title. In singles, Yu was the top seed eventually falling in the third round (Chong did not compete.) Alissa Nakamoto ’21 managed to reach the quarterfinals before losing to Camile Smukler from Amherst, who defeated both Klass-Warch’s, Zoe losing in the second round and Helen in the third.
A week later, the men’s team competed at the Quinnipiac Invitational, coincidentally also in Cambridge, Mass. Senior Cam Daniels fell in the quarterfinals to one Lars Schouten from Marist College, who subsequently defeated Finkelman in the semis in a tight super-tiebreaker, 11-9. Yet Steven Chen ’18, the Cards number one last year, was simply too powerful, vanquishing Schouten in another tight super-tiebreaker 12-10 in the finals.
Even after these triumphs, the Dirty Birds were still hungry for more, and more did they get at the ITA New England Regional Championships at Middlebury College from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. In dominating fashion true to their nature, Chong and Yu captured the doubles title, in addition to another singles title from Chong. With their tournament victories, Chong and Yu will play in the ITA Oracle Cup, which contains all the ITA Regional Champions, in Rome, Georgia from Oct. 11 to 15. The champions of the Oracle Cup will gain a spot at the Oracle ITA Fall National Championships in Indian Wells, Cal.
On the men’s side of the regionals, Chen reached the quarterfinals in the singles draw, but the real surprise was Finkelman. The freshman, true to his recruiting status, defeated the number one seed and last year’s NCAA Divison III singles Champion Lubomir Cuba from Middlebury in the semifinals, before losing to Brian Grodecki of Williams in the finals. In order to beat such a skilled opponent as Lubomir Cuba, it’s no wonder that Finkelman had to absolutely bury himself.
“It was damn near freezing, so that was rough,” he said. “My body hurt in ways that I wasn’t used to. But [Cuba] was playing through the same conditions—so even playing ground.”
As a top recruit, it’s easy to assume that it would be difficult for Finkelman to handle the pressure of expectations that are certain to be levied on him, even more so after this recent run. Yet Finkelman doesn’t care about them.
“Rankings don’t really mean shit,” Finkelman said. “Those rankings are from Juniors, so I want to forget about them. It’s time to move on and prove myself at the college level.”
Likewise, Coach Fried believes that it’s important to reframe the issue.
“We actually do our best to eliminate all results-based expectations, both individually and as a team,” said Fried. “We work hard on developing good training and competing habits, and then we try hard to avoid going into matches thinking that we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ have a certain result—that we’re ‘supposed’ to win or lose.”
Even in light of Finkelman’s recent success, it’s clear that the Red and Black are focused on refining their game each and every day, as opposed to looking to fill a cabinet with some large trophies. Yet these Cardinals still relish the opportunity to compete against the top players in the nation, not for themselves, but for Wesleyan.
“…When I’m playing singles or doubles I’m not thinking about playing for myself” said Helen Klass-Warch. “I’m playing for my doubles partner, my teammates, and Wesleyan as a whole.”
The Cards’ next opportunity to test their skills will be on Oct. 13 to 15, when the men head to the MIT Invitational and the women head to New England Women’s Intercollegiate, except for Chong and Yu, who will be at the ITA Oracle Cup.
This year is sure to be an exciting one for Cards tennis given their talent, training, and mindset. And the new courts are just the cherry on top.
“Our new courts are so sick, so I’m really excited for all the home matches that we’re going to be having in the spring,” said Helen Klass-Warch. “Hopefully it will get people on campus more excited about tennis and how much our program has developed over the years.”
Cormac Chester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.