Sprinting across the baseline, sophomore Brian Shi desperately stretched out his arm. A crisp pop resounded throughout the Murr Center as his racket made clean contact with the ball and sent it spinning over the net, just out of his opponent’s reach. He fell to the court, soon greeted by his whooping and cheering teammates as the Harvard (11-1, 1-1 Ivy League) men’s tennis team clinched a 4-3 victory over a strong Northwestern (8-5, 0-1 Big Ten) squad. Two weeks prior, Shi had closely battled the former No. 1 male college tennis player, All-American, and current world No. 59 Cameron Norrie in the professional New York Open tournament, falling 5-7, 3-6. After this victory over Northwestern and a defeat of Boston University on the same weekend, the Crimson moved up to No. 11 in the Division I rankings, the team’s highest ranking since 1998 and its third-highest ranking in history. This would be the final spot for Harvard mens’ tennis before the rest of the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus.
Harvard is led by Shi and a slew of accomplished and capable upperclassmen such as junior Robert Wrzesinski and captain Galen Lee. In addition to the experienced aces of Harvard tennis, a large part of the team’s historic year has come from the rackets of the current batch of first-years Ronan Jachuck, Henry von der Schulenburg, and Alan Yim. With all three freshmen in the starting lineup, the Crimson had gotten off to a nearly perfect start. The cancellation of all Ivy League sports mid-season ensured that the tennis team would not be able to fulfill its potential this year, but the young stars nevertheless showed that they will be a force to be reckoned with going forward.
“The underclassmen really picked it up,” Shi said. “Making that transition [to the tennis team and college in general] is really tough, but I thought the freshmen did a great job integrating into the team. They’re such hard workers and so disciplined.”
Support from the more experienced members of the team — like Shi and the solid nucleus of upperclassmen — played a crucial role in the first years’ contributions to the historic season.
“Being part of a team has definitely been the best aspect of playing college tennis so far” said Jachuck, who had not played for his high school team to focus on competing in national tournaments. “In the fall I was able to get to know the upperclassmen, and then coming to the spring and competing every week this team has really become my second family,” he said.
In his first year on the team, Jachuck was named to the No. 1 singles position, where he finished the season with an 8-2 record and a national ranking of No. 56 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. On his way, he handily defeated Minnesota’s (8-3, 1-0 Big Ten) ITA-ranked No. 38 Stefan Milicevic and other nationally recognized players as he advanced through the draws of national tournaments.
Jachuck attributes the early success of his career to the atmosphere of Crimson tennis.
“Playing for a team brings a new dimension for what I can bring to the court,” he said. “Collectively we all put in the work every day and have had some very good results and have seen our ranking climb, and I think we can go even higher,” said Jachuck, noting the effect his supportive teammates can have on the tide of a match. “Prior to coming to Harvard I knew that our recruiting classes were becoming very strong, but to have the impact that we’ve had right away in this first month of dual matches has been really impressive,” he remarked.
In addition to the contributions of Jachuck and Shi, the NCAA’s six-single format has allowed for more of the Crimson’s talent to be realized. Following Jachuck and Shi at No. 3 is von der Schulenburg, who concluded his first season at 9-1, defeating many ranked players and even capturing the singles title at the Harvard-hosted Chowder Fest in the fall. Crimson players had their names written all over the event; Jachuck and sophomore Harry Walker were crowned doubles champions with their undefeated record. Jachuck also commended the performances of freshman Alan Yim and sophomore Steven Sun, who both provided key victories throughout the year and the latter of whom clinched a tense 4-3 victory over Vanderbilt (7-6, 1-3 SEC) after fending off three match points.
With the season’s premature conclusion, the team has begun to look forward to this fall.
“We’ve had such great leaders in the past few years I’ve been on the team, and filling those shoes is going to be a pretty hard task,” Shi said. “I feel like our class especially is stepping into that role of leading the team, and I think we’re going to do a good job of it.”
Shi’s class will hopefully get the chance to play its new leadership role for the next batch of recruits in the fall.
“We’ve got three great guys coming in — I know each of them pretty well — and they all have good games and work really hard,” Jachuck said optimistically.
At the crux of Harvard tennis’ success this year seems to be a rejuvenation of talent headed by Jachuck, Shi, and von der Schulenberg among the skilled freshman and sophomore classes. Although the Crimson’s upward trajectory was cut short by the coronavirus, with the addition of the class of 2024’s recruits, the team will have the chance to accomplish much more in the years to come.
“It's really nothing to be upset about that our season ended early because it gives us so much more hope for the future. Our team is so young, and we have so many great recruits coming in also that I’m sure we’re going to do just as well next year — if not even better,” Shi said.