This story is part of The Sun’s 2017 spring supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.
In 2011, the Cornell men’s tennis team clinched its first-ever Ivy League championship with a dominant 6-1 decision over Columbia in its season finale.
Six years later, Cornell is once again sitting atop the Ivy League.
In the aftermath following the nail-biting last set which clinched the Red’s Ivy League title last Sunday, all was well and good. However, lost among the celebration of the championship was the uphill journey to this second title.
In a timespan of just six years, the team has now seen itself humbled from the top of the podium — falling to the bottom tier of the Ivy standings — only to persevere and come back to win another conference title.
“The team has improved every single year, and I think it has culminated with this group right now,” said head coach Silviu Tanasoiu. “I don’t mean to be arrogant, but our results this year are not a surprise, given the amount of time and effort the team has put into the process and their own development.”
Following its 2011 championship season, the Red fell as low as the fifth-seeded team in the eight-team Ivy league conference. However, Cornell’s fortunes would begin to turn around in the 2014 season, when the current seniors joined the program.
“I remember entering the team as a freshman, there was a large group of us new recruits,” said senior Bernando Casares Rosa, whose win against Brown clinched the Ivy title. “At the very beginning, I think many of us weren’t very committed to tennis. However, Coach Tanasoiu would always tell us to do the right thing, to ‘trust the process’ … and we began to want to work the right way.”
Under the guidance of Tanasoiu and the talented then-freshman class, Cornell gradually improved year-by-year. The team placed fourth in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons before finishing in third last year.
“Winning really came naturally after Coach [Tanasoiu] changed the mentality of the team,” Casares Rosa added. “We started winning games, and it really showed that people can improve and start playing better by changing their mentality. It all starts with just putting in the work everyday.”
Coming into the current season, the team was going to settle for nothing less than an Ivy League championship. However, this year’s expectations were warranted in a notably distinct way from previous years: the influx of a markedly talented freshmen class
“We’re extremely happy with the freshmen we’ve gotten this year,” Tanasoiu said. “They’ve added so much quality to our program by locking in and understanding what it takes [to win]. The seniors have also really helped them [to buy] into the system right off the bat.”
Freshman Lev Kazakov played a particularly prominent role in the Red’s success this year. Entering the team as the number one recruit out of Russia and ranked as high as 30 among junior players in the world, Kazakov has seen consistent playing time at singles.
“Lev is a phenomenal athlete from every single standpoint and a workhorse who does anything it takes to get better,” Tanasoiu said. “He has high aspirations to play tennis at the next level, and I think he has the ability to do so. He’s made an impact right away and you can just sense there’s a different type of energy and quality from him.”
And while one might expect a transition phase from differing styles of international coaching and play, Kazakov has not skipped a beat. Playing at first and second singles for a majority of the season, the freshman has compiled a 12-5 record and is currently ranked 101 in the nation.
“There’s definitely a transition [to make] from Russia to playing in the NCAAs, but I’m very happy I could make such a big impact on the team so early playing at first [and second] singles,” Kazakov said. “I have to thank all the seniors and coaching staff for helping me transition to Cornell and the team.”
The rest of the freshman class is quite impressive as well. Pietro Rimondini and Joe McAllister entered the program as five and four-star recruits, respectively. Rohan Sikka was ranked as high as 17th among juniors in the U.K., while Al Hill entered the Red ranked at 109th in the nation.
However, while the freshman class certainly boasts a multitude of talent, the main reason for success always comes back to the leadership of the seniors.
“Coming in, [the seniors] had a clear vision for what we could do this year,” McAllister said. “Obviously there’s a lot of talent on the team, but they really played a major role in laying the foundation and putting us in a position to win.”
When speaking to members of the team, this year’s success is always accredited first and foremost to the Red’s five seniors — Casares Rosa, Isaiah Brilhante, Dylan Brown, Colin Sinclair and Chris Vrabel — who have provided both the foundational consistency and motivational leadership for the team.
“We have tremendous leadership — [five] seniors who have set an unbelievable example from work-ethic, ambition, dedication, and discipline standpoints,” Tanasoiu said. “They’ve grown to a level where they understand what it takes [to win] and have impacted everyone else across the board.”
“Over these past three years, they’ve played against some very strong opponents,” Tanasoiu continued. “It’s gotten to the point where they now understand … the type of focus, effort, and consistency it takes to compete with these types of opponents.”
And of course, they have provided leadership off the court as well. In a certain sense, the five seniors have fathered the freshmen, from investing extensive amounts of time in tutoring their underclassmen or helping to develop time management skills, to simply informing them about bus schedules.
“The seniors definitely helped me develop from a silly, [less experienced] player to a smarter, more mature one,” Rimondini said. “They’ve helped me out in so many ways — from when I’m struggling in my matches to when I’m not feeling well at night. They’ve been my mentors, my life coaches, and I’m just really glad for all the help they’ve given me.”
With the chemistry and leadership of this year’s team, and despite recently winning the Ivy League title, the Red are naturally looking ahead to even loftier goals.
“We’re all very excited to have won the Ivy’s, but I’m also sure that the team is now going to focus on NCAAs and going far in that tournament,” McAllister said.
If Cornell should qualify for the NCAA tournament, it will be uncharted territory for a program which has never earned an at-large bid. And after winning the Ivy title and posting a stellar regular season record, the Red certainly has reason to believe it will qualify.
“We want to go deep in the NCAAs, and it’s been a goal of ours for years now,” Tanasoiu said. “I think this year we certainly have a chance to do so, especially because we’ve played very challenging opponents this semester, and we know we can match up with the best in the country.”
Nevertheless, even while a qualifying spot for the NCAA tournament remains uncertain, there is one thing which remains clear: with the exceptional mentorship of a standout freshman class, and with the precedent set by this year’s senior class, the best is yet to come.