Marwan Tarek, Harvard's squash national champion.
Marwan Tarek, Harvard's squash national champion.|Gil Talbot /

Opinion: Abrams recalls the phenomenal 1973-74 Stanford men's tennis team while watching the 2019-20 Harvard squash team

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

In 1973-74, Stanford University boasted a powerhouse Men’s Tennis Team featuring Sandy Mayer, Pat DuPre, Jim Delaney, and John Whitlinger, after just having graduated future Wimbledom finalist Roscoe Tanner. How strong was the Cardinal? Sandy Mayer, just weeks after winning the 1973 NCAA Men’s Tennis Championships would reach the semi-finals of Wimbledon. Pat DuPree was the 1972 National Jr. Champion at Kalamazoo (where he upset Vitas Gerulatis in the semis). Jim Delaney was a four time All-American and won two NCAA doubles titles, one with Sandy Mayer and the other with John Whitlinger. And Whitlinger, who later became the Head Coach of the Cardinal, was both the 1974 NCAA Men’s Tennis Singles and Doubles champion (with Delaney).

But the story that is always worth repeating concerns Whitlinger. The Neenah, Wisc., native was a big star in the Juniors and went to Stanford to play tennis. He joined a powerhouse of a program that was coached by the legendary Dick Gould, and was simply a reliable, consistent cog in the wheel of a great tennis machine, where he played #3 behind Mayer, who quickly became #7 in the world after graduation, and DuPre, another in a long line of Stanford’s roster of Kalamazoo champions, who later reached the Wimbledon semis in 1979. After coming oh so close to winning the 1972 NCAA Team title, the team entered the ’73 tournament without its top two players, who were both injured. So, what did Whitlinger, the #3 Cardinal do? He simply stepped up, and won the whole dang tournament. Stanford, meet your #3 player—the 1974 NCAA Men’s Singles champion.

Additionally, with Mayer and DuPre out, Stanford’s Whitlinger, Delaney and Chico Hagey, a Junior tennis star in his own right, all stepped up and enabled the Cardinal to capture its first NCAA Men’s Team title, as Whitlinger topped Hagey (who a couple of weeks before had been #7 on Stanford’s ladder—you only dress 6 singles players in collegiate tennis) in the finals to claim his individual Singles title.

This year, Harvard pulled off a similarly inspiring individual triumph after a major upset felled their #1 squash player, and returning National Champion, Victor Crouin in the very first round of the College Squash Association championships. Crouin, Harvard’s #1 squash player, returned home to Paris after his freshman year at Harvard last year with both the National Individual title on his resume, and as an integral part of the squad that nabbed the National Team title. He returned to school for his sophomore year eager to add to his accomplishments. After all, he had won the national French Junior title seven times, was the Ivy League Player of the Year his freshman year, and this year went undefeated in the Harvard dual matches, losing only four games the whole year!

In a contest which is decided in the best of five games scoring format, Crouin’s record indicated that his internal challenge matches with his Harvard teammates appeared to be far more competitive than any of his matches on Harvard’s dual match schedule, where he played against other schools’ best players.

But there was a little bit of controversy brewing underneath the surface. Crouin only played in half of Harvard’s matches, seemingly being held out when the opponents were not expected to offer much resistance. In fact, Crouin even played #2 against Dartmouth back on Dec. 3, when teammate Marwan Tarek, a sophomore from Cairo, Egypt, dominated at the #1 spot. For his part, Tarek was a 2-time Egyptian National Champion, had compiled a 14-1 record his freshman year in Cambridge, and played most of that year at the #2 spot for the Crimson. Two weekends ago, when Harvard totally dominated the entire draw to capture it’s second national team title in succession, Crouin beat Penn’s #1 player, Andrew Douglas in their individual match-up in the #1 position in the finals of the team event, but it was very competitive with Douglas winning a game and losing the fourth game 16-14. Although Crouin won 3-1, the match lasted 64 minutes, which could be the sign, of a close, hard-fought contest. By comparison, Tarek beat Penn’s #2, Aly Abou El Einen 3-0 in just 49 minutes, which indicated that the match was somewhat routine.

When the individual singles draw came out for the Individual championships just four days ago, Crouin was scheduled to play Douglas yet again—it would be their third match against each other this year—in the first round. But Douglas came down with the flu, and Penn’s coach Gilly Lane substituted his #3 player, Canadian James Flynn for his ace, and the drama began to unfold. Flynn, not used to the pace or the sterling strategy of the best player in college, quickly found himself down 1-0 as Crouin cruised to an 11-4 drubbing in their initial game. But then Flynn started to get used to the match. He was playing on his home turf, with the College Championships being played on Penn’s brand new courts, and, while receiving support from the pro-Penn crowd, he began to rally as players from the other teams gathered ‘round, mostly with their mouths open, aghast at what they were seeing. Flynn quickly evened their match at 1 game apiece when he took game 2, 12-10, in a real battle. Flynn then gathered strength, and won the third and fourth games 11-8, as the crowd looked on, both impressed and shocked. Flynn, Penn’s #3 player, had just taken out the very best college squash player in the land, 3-1!

Flynn promptly lost to teammate Aly Abou El Einen, Penn’s #2 in the quarters, and El Einen mastered Harvard’s #3, Saadeldin Abouaish 3-0 to move into the finals. Interestingly, in the first meeting between these two teams, Abouaish had played #4, and in their matchup the previous weekend for the team title, these guys never made it to the court as Harvard had wrapped up the team match before these guys were scheduled to play, in the third rotation. So it could be slightly misleading to call El Einen’s victory over Abouaish a big upset, since it was their first match against each other.

Tarek, Harvard’s #2, and the tournament’s #3 seed, was waiting for El Einen in the finals, having beaten in succession Matt Toth of Rochester 3-0, Aly Hussein of Virginia 3-1, and #2 seed Miko Aijanen of Trinity 3-1 in the semis. When Harvard’s #2 Tarek, beat Penn’s #2, El Einen on Sunday in a gutsy battle that lasted five very tough games 9-11, 13-11, 10-12, 11-6, 11-5 to take home the 2020 CSA Men’s Individual title, it became apparent that the beauty of playing on a team is not only the constant competition from a friendly teammate, but how teammates can help each other reach new heights when they least expect it.

It reminded me of the 1973-74 Stanford Cardinal Men’s Tennis Team.

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