“It’s like kicking babies!” screamed a Jimmy Connors wannabe as he chucked his $200 dollar Wilson Pro Staff into the curtained walls of Court 5. This ridiculous outburst of tennis frustration remains one of the most inappropriately entertaining moments of my career behind the front desk at Cornell’s Reis Tennis Center.
While I still don’t quite get how the analogy works, his general sentiment comes to mind in trying capture what it’s like to watch a collegiate tennis match live.
Take, for example, the men’s tennis team’s home matches against Brown and Yale this past weekend. Given 500 words and a 6 p.m. deadline to summarize 12 singles matches and 6 doubles matches, it is virtually impossible for any beat writer to convey anything more than a few match scores and player quotes from the Red’s 5-2 win over the Bears on Friday and 6-1 loss to the Bulldogs on Saturday. But lost in the translation from match to recap on page 31 of Monday’s Sun is what actually makes college tennis worth reading about.
First, with seven total matches the stakes of every Ivy match are ridiculously high, and with more parity than Major League Baseball, the margin between winning and losing can be heartbreakingly small. You can win more points, more games than your opponent and still lose a match. All it takes are a few bad breaks, a couple of shots that clip the net cord and fall on the wrong side and suddenly you’re throwing your racquet and screaming about drop-kicking babies.
Going 4-1 over its Spring Break trip to California, Cornell looked primed to take a run at the Ivy title. Instead, with some untimely injuries and a few three-set losses, Cornell sat at 0-3 in the Ivies entering the weekend, but if anything, the losses added to the intensity of the match against Brown, a team that had won the league two years running but came into town last Friday also looking for its first Ivy win.
The doubles point is the college tennis equivalent of an opening act at Slope Day. Winning the doubles point is like having The Game open for Snoop Dog, it just sets the right tone. Against Brown, Cornell’s No. 1 doubles team of senior tri-captains Josh Raff and Nick Brunner set the tone early, dismantling their overmatched opponents in less than hour. Watching them on their way to an 8-3 victory was like watching a pair of surgeons operate. When the two are on, Brunner’s serve combined with Raff’s volleys are about as close to a perfect doubles pairing as you can hope for.
Still, for pure tennis gluttony, it’s hard to beat the singles matches of an Ivy league contest. Standing courtside at Reis is like having a College Gameday package that’s playing live on six TVs. At any given moment last Friday, every court had something to watch.
Returning from a back injury, senior tri-captain Dan Brous looks unstoppable in his No. 3 singles match on Court 2, while right next door Court 1, Brunner can’t seem to catch a single netcord in his favor, dropping the first set to Brown’s No. 1 in a tie-breaker. Up a few breaks on Court 3, freshman Jonathan Fife looks to be grinding out a victory at No. 5 singles, while on Court 5, junior Rory Heggie struggles to find a rhythm against his opponent. With one crucial winner, one questionable call, the momentum on any of these courts can and does swing dramatically. From a fan’s perspective, it’s exhilarating, almost like watching a three-hour long horse race, with the riders constantly jockeying for position.
Finally with Cornell leading 3-2 in match scores, the Red needs just one more win in singles to clinch its first win over Brown. It comes down to two matches: Raff at No. 2 singles and sophomore Josh Goldstein at No. 6 singles. Raff lost a close first set in a tiebreaker, but is cruising up two breaks in the second. Things don’t look as good on Court 6, where Goldstein also dropped the first set. His strokes look short, half-finished and tentative and I placed my hopes for a Cornell victory on Raff.
But then something happened. It’s impossible to pinpoint when or how, but Goldstein turns things around. He starts hitting out on his ground strokes, dictating points and dominating play. He cruises through the second set, 6-2, and with a backhand volley down the line closes out the third set 6-4, taking No. 5 singles and securing the win for Cornell.
Trying to describe Goldstein’s comeback is like trying to give play-by-play for a game of speed chess. By the time the outcome is finalized, all the previous moves of the match are a blur, and picking a turning point is impossible because there’ve already been at least 16 times when you were sure the match was heading one way. Left with a handful of clichés to try to describe what you just saw, all you can do is stand, cheer and applaud.
Cornell plays its final home match of the year against Princeton this Sunday. The results will be in Monday’s paper, but the experience of seeing it live is as indescribable as someone drop-kicking a baby.
Paul Testa is a Sun Senior Writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Cleveland Rocks appears on alternate Wednesdays.