Two matches against NESCAC opponents last weekend revealed the double-edged sword that is the Jumbos’ youth. A day after displaying its depth and promise during its game against Amherst, which it lost 5-4, the team then labored to defeat Trinity 5-4.
Coming off an encouraging performance against Amherst, a makeshift Tufts squad traveled to Hartford, Conn. to take on Trinity. With junior Zain Ali, the team’s typical No. 2 singles player, unable to make the trip due to an academic commitment and injuries sustained during doubles sidelining both junior Rohan Gupte and first-year Zach Shaff, the Jumbos were without three of their top four players from the previous day’s match.
As a result, the team had to utilize its depth to pull out the 5-4 victory, according to coach Karl Gregor.
“[We] have a number of players … who can all compete equally at No. 5 or No. 6,” Gregor said. “[Despite the injuries], I thought that I could interject a couple of them and we’d be okay.”
The Jumbos met the challenge but not without a few hiccups. First-year Nathan Niemiec replaced Ali in the second slot, winning 6-4, 6-4, and sophomore Ethan Chen also provided a victory (6-1, 7-5) in the No. 4 singles match. But Tufts faltered in No. 1 and 2 doubles, with the partnerships of Gupte and junior Griffin Brockman, and Shaff and senior tri-captain Ben Battle falling 8-4 and 8-5, respectively.
Instead, the Jumbos relied on contributions from a pair of less experienced players. Sophomore Ross Kamin slid into the sixth singles spot on short notice and registered a resounding 6-3, 6-0 win. The Longmeadow, Mass. native followed that up by partnering, for the first time ever, with Niemiec in the third doubles match to provide another victory (8-3).
Senior tri-captain Kevin Kelly praised Kamin’s performance.
“[The absences] meant that some guys who aren’t usually in the lineup had to step up,” Kelly said. “Ross came in and really [performed] for us.”
First-year Ben Biswas also had a strong showing, as he secured the victory by defeating the Bantams’ Philip Winser (6-2, 6-7, 6-0) in the No. 5 singles match.
Despite the victory, Gregor lamented his team’s lack of tenacity against the Trinity squad, attributing it to natural growing pains faced by any young team.
“I think [we] can be prone to not taking an inferior opponent seriously enough,” Gregor said. “I’m trying to stress that we have to be sharp for every match because [if we aren’t], we’ll have a close call like we did against Trinity.”
The previous day, Tufts played host to No. 14 Amherst. Due to snow, the match was moved indoors to the Gantcher Center, a change that posed minimal problems — and may have even been good — for the team, according to Gregor.
“We’ve been practicing in Gantcher a lot, so we’re accustomed to the bounce,” Gregor said. “The courts [were] resurfaced this summer … but there’s always a bit of a home court advantage when you’re not playing on a traditional hard court.”
If the court surface was smooth, the match was anything but, as the teams traded blows back-and-forth. While Gupte lost in the first singles (4-6, 6-7), Ali (6-3, 6-3) and junior Dan Coran (6-2, 6-2) were victorious in the second and third positions.
Three of the singles matches went the distance. Both Shaff (6-2, 1-6, 1-6) and Niemiec (6-4, 2-6, 2-6) fell after winning the opening set, but Kelly recorded an impressive 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Amherst’s Oscar Burney, who was ranked 19th in the country by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association in their November rankings.
Despite his success, Kelly was quick to deflect the credit onto his teammates.
“It has a huge impact on [the] match when you have the whole [team] cheering and pushing for you to stretch for that extra ball,” Kelly said. “For those wins, it’s always a team effort.”
With the singles matches split 3-3 between the two teams, Amherst’s 2-1 edge in doubles gave the team the victory by the slimmest of margins. A bright spot for the Jumbos was the continued success of the Shaff/Battle partnership, which won for the fifth time this year, 8-6, in the No. 2 doubles.
“Zach’s singles [matches] have been very solid, but more impressive has been how he and Ben have performed in doubles,” Gregor said. “He’s figured out doubles quickly for a first-year.”
Despite the loss, the Jumbos were encouraged by the fact that they were able to compete with a talented Amherst squad.
“[The game] confirmed that we can compete with any team in the NESCAC and the country,” Gregor said. “I don’t think much of the Div. III tennis world gave us a shot at coming close, and we were a set away from beating them.”
The young team, currently standing at 5-3, will compete against four of the top teams in Div. III: Middlebury, Wesleyan, Williams and Bates. They are confident, however, that close matches like those against Amherst and Trinity will accelerate their maturation and result in more consistency in the future.