NC State men’s tennis has been there and done that in knockdown-dragout matches in the past, and all signs pointed toward another heroic win inside the J.W. Isenhour Tennis Center in Raleigh.
With an epic comeback win on the horizon, the Wolfpack had designs on sending its opponents home heartbroken, especially after going down 2-0 early on.
Harvard, however, had other plans. The Crimson got a grip after the Pack’s singles surge, gunning down junior Luca Staeheli in the deciding match to claim the 4-3 victory.
“It’s a really tough one for the guys, 4-3, last match on,” said head coach Kyle Spencer. “Give Harvard a lot of credit, they hung in there.”
But while the Pack’s comeback attempt fell just short of the mark, No. 21 NC State (2-2) took No. 16 Harvard (1-0) to the absolute brink, battling back in singles matches across the board to turn a 2-0 Crimson lead into a 3-3 deadlock.
Even though Staeheli didn’t get the result the crowd of Wolfpack fans in attendance wanted, he gave his opponent a run for his money and the aforementioned crowd a thrilling show. Both of Staeheli’s sets went to tiebreak, but the junior couldn’t pull out either one, eventually falling 7-6, 7-6.
With both teams splitting the singles matches 3-3, it was the early doubles point that retrospectively became one of the most important parts of the match. Harvard came out strong in the round, and while NC State put up quite a fight, the Crimson claimed the first two doubles courts to gain the early advantage.
Harvard then expanded on its 1-0 lead, winning a quick singles match over senior Martins Rocens 6-2, 6-2 that put NC State on its back foot — if it wasn’t there already.
It was then, however, that NC State buckled down, winning three of the next four singles matches, the first of which came via a strong showing by redshirt sophomore Braden Shick, who downed his Crimson opponent 6-4, 6-3.
To tie the contest at 2-2, senior Robin Catry pulled off the Pack’s most impressive and entertaining win of the day. After dropping his first set, the senior used the raucous crowd behind him to his advantage, claiming the next two sets in electrifying fashion to complete one of his best singles wins in recent memory.
It seemed like every time Catry won a point, the crowd that had gathered around his court went into a frenzy. With Catry and the crowd feeding off the other’s intensity and energy, his 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win was the most important and entertaining win of the day.
“Robin was fantastic,” Spencer said. “He played a really good guy who played a really tough first set. Robin kept his level and probably upped his level a little bit, and then once he got going, he got the crowd going, and he was able to pull that one out. That was huge for us and for the tenor of the match.”
Catry’s energizing win was a crucial one, tying the match at 2-2. The Crimson responded accordingly, though, taking down fifth-year senior Rafael Izquierdo Luque on court one in a grueling two-set match that ended well after Catry’s three-setter. With Harvard in clinch position, it all came down to sophomore Fons Van Sambeek and Staeheli to secure two must-win matches in order to pull off the upset.
Van Sambeek delivered on that end, winning a tense first-set tiebreak as part of a 7-6, 6-4 win. With Van Sambeek’s clutch win in hand, all eyes turned to Staeheli on court two. Even though the junior was already down due to his own first-set tiebreak, it was still anyone’s match heading into the second set.
Ultimately, however, he couldn’t pull off the would-be heroic win as seemingly endless back-and-forth rallies eventually culminated in another tiebreaker. While Staeheli fared well in the beginning of the breaker, his opponent wouldn’t relent, eventually beating the junior out for the second set and the overall victory.
While it ended in a heartbreaking defeat, there were quite a few positive takeaways from the ranked loss. The resolve, tenacity and effort that was displayed by NC State were primary ones, as well as the impressive performances from players such as Shick, Catry and Van Sambeek.
At the same time, NC State’s lack of success at the start of the match will have the red-and-white thinking about what could have been, even with the high level of play Havard brought to Raleigh in the Crimson’s season-opener.
“Overall, you feel bad for the guys,” Spencer said. “Harvard's a very good team, we know they're a very good team, and we’ll just learn from this and get a little bit better for the next week.”
The Pack has a week to prepare for its chance to rebound as NC State is set to take on VCU in its first away match of the season at the ITA Kickoff Weekend in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, Jan. 28.