Excerpts from A History of Princeton Tennis

Princeton Women’s Tennis: The Early Years (1970-79)


   The Princeton women’s tennis team, the first women’s team in any sport to ever play at the varsity level at Old Nassau, enjoyed such immediate and extraordinary success that it by all accounts played a primary role in jumpstarting the creation of the University’s women’s teams in many other sports during the early portion of the decade of the 1970’s.That the women’s tennis team both became a reality and captivated the campus as swiftly as it did can largely be credited to the exploits of two enthusiastic and distinctive athletes, the seize-the-moment wisdom and courage of one intrepid rookie administrator and the generous spirit of two of the truly legendary figures in the annals of Princeton racquet sports.

   In anticipation of the decision by the Princeton University Board of Governors (which was officially rendered in early 1969) to have the previously men’s-only college become coeducational beginning with the 1969-70 academic year, its leading administrators had started assiduously planning several years earlier for this significant transition. A Committee on Coeducation, comprised of accomplished academicians in a number of pertinent fields, was formed in 1967 to make the necessary preparations regarding all aspects of college life, including athletics. In May 1970 a Physical Education Director for Women, Merrily Dean, who had spent the prior year organizing a women’s athletic program at Franklin & Marshall, was hired to inaugurate a similar program at Princeton, and when she arrived in August, she found the Committee’s newly published report and recommendations waiting on her desk.

   These documents exhaustively detailed a comprehensive schedule for the development of women’s athletics over a five-year period. Pursuant to this time table, all undergraduate women were required to enroll in physical education courses in a variety of sports organized by Ms. Dean. Within a few years a weekly all-female intramural event, dubbed the Tuesday Night Recreation Program, in which on Tuesday evenings Dillon Gym was open only to women, both students and non-students, was put into place. It was instituted based on what the report described as “a sensed need for special activities in which women could have some female activity on what was still very much a male-dominated campus.” The expected sequence for the progression of women’s athletics, in accordance with the Committee’s recommendations, was for these classes and activities to lead to the creation of more formal intramural sports by the third year, with a full-scale intercollegiate varsity program to follow two years after that.


    However, this cautious and rather leisurely timetable would receive a healthy and forceful jolt less than a month into the 1970-71 school year when two tennis players, namely junior Helena Novakova and sophomore Marjory Gengler, visited Ms. Dean to ask permission to represent Princeton at the early-October Eastern Intercollegiate Tennis Championship for Women in New Paltz, NY. Novakova had been a Junior National Champion in her native Czechoslovakia and Gengler had been ranked 16th nationally in Women’s tennis (not the Junior rankings) and first in the Eastern Lawn Tennis Association (ELTA). She had just transferred to Princeton after spending her freshman year at Tulane University and attaining the second round in the main draw of the U.S. Open at Forest Hills during the intervening summer. Instinctively realizing that it was the right thing to do, Ms. Dean immediately authorized them to enter the event and even sewed their names onto the backs of Princeton T-shirts purchased at the U-Store before she sent them off to the tournament. They were accompanied by Eve Kraft, who lived in Princeton Township and whom Ms. Dean had recruited from the local tennis community just a few weeks earlier to teach phys-ed tennis lessons part-time in the women's physical education program. Mrs. Kraft was the founder and co-director of the Princeton Community Tennis Program along with John Conroy, who since 1946 had served as Princeton’s men's varsity head tennis coach.

   The fact that Gengler and Novakova would be entering the tournament created enough of a buzz on campus to have the Daily Princetonian write a preview piece in which its reporter, Bill Quicksilver, excitedly announced that, “When they step on the court they will be the first women ever to represent Princeton in intercollegiate competition.” Gengler had already attracted notice by hitting --- and more than holding her own --- with some members of the men’s varsity during the opening weeks of school. Because of her high national ranking and impressive on-court results at Tulane and before that as a junior tennis player in the east and then at the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California --- where she had been awarded both the Sportsmanship Cup and the Loyalty Cup for embodying the qualities of integrity, loyalty and academic excellence --- Gengler was made the top seed. Upon learning this, she lamented, "It is really terrible being seeded first because all the pressure is on you, but hopefully I’ll do all right." That she did, and then some, by storming through both the singles and (with Novakova) doubles draws without dropping a set, capping off the singles with a 6-0, 6-0 rout of Barbara Kearns of Syracuse, semis winner in three sets over Novakova, who wound up placing third. On October 17, 2020, Jerry Price, the longtime Senior Communications Advisor/Historian of the Princeton Athletics Department, tweeted a congratulatory note to Gengler and Novakova on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their having participated in the first competitive event in the history of Princeton women’s athletics. A few days earlier, the pair had been guests on the inaugural podcast of a series titled “The First 50: The Women Who Started It All,” hosted by Price and Princeton’s Director of Athletics Mollie Marcoux Samaan.

   As a result of their achievements, Princeton was awarded the championship team trophy in a sport in which the University hadn’t even yet officially formed a team! Gengler was featured in the “Faces In The Crowd” page in the November 16th edition of Sports Illustrated, with an accompanying caption that saluted her for “giving Princeton University its first victory (in one start) in women’s athletics.” Due almost entirely to her performance  and that of Novakova, as well as the supportive actions of Ms. Dean and Eve Kraft, a plan three years in the preparation that had been projected to take five years to fully put in place had instead essentially been implemented in three weeks. In the glowing aftermath of this smashing success, a decision was made very shortly thereafter to form a women’s varsity tennis team that would compete that same academic year, in response to which Ms. Dean spent the next several months calling colleges in the northeast corridor in an attempt to drum up a competitive schedule before the spring months began. For her part, Mrs. Kraft, who had agreed to coach the debuting women’s tennis team at least for a year or two to in order to help get it off the ground, started recruiting players from her phys-ed classes and posting notices in the Daily Princetonian and around the campus as a way of spreading the word.

   On April 12th the team, whose initial lineup consisted of captain Gengler at No. 1 followed by Novakova, Laurie Watson and Adelaide “Laddie” Jennings in singles and a pair of doubles teams  ---- Rose “Podie” Lynch (a former No. 1 doubles player at Bennett College) teamed up with former Delaware Junior Wightman Cup team member Sally Fields, and Marion Freeman did the same with her fellow sophomore Emily Fisher --- played its first match at home against the University of Pennsylvania. “White dresses will replace the traditional shorts on the University Courts as Princeton’s first women’s varsity tennis team begins its season today,” the Daily Princetonian proclaimed that morning. Actually it was the first Princeton women’s varsity team in any sport that was making its debut that day. Certainly no one could have known how a Princeton team that had been cobbled together so extemporaneously (and, as noted, WAY ahead of schedule) would fare against an established opponent like Penn, which by that juncture had been fielding winning tennis teams for five years.

    The contrast in wardrobes between the two units was particularly striking and revealing. The Princeton team, which initially wasn’t even low-budget but rather no-budget, consequently had no team uniform and (with everyone wearing different clothing) presented somewhat of a rag-tag appearance. This was especially true relative to their Penn counterparts, all of whom were impressively clad in spiffy matching warm-up suits and carrying tennis bags sporting the Penn logo --- but none of this made a scintilla of difference once play began. The comparatively underdressed but much more talented Tigers, with 250 spectators (far more than normally turned out for a varsity men’s tennis meet) in attendance and providing plenty of vocal support, swept the top three singles matches and eked out close victories in both doubles matches for a 5-1 triumph. It represented the first of eight team wins in as many dual meets during this inaugural 1971 season.

  No one was in a better position to appreciate how far and how fast the Princeton women’s tennis team had come as the spring months unfolded than Lynch, the only senior on the roster and the only team member other than her fellow Concord Academy prep-school alumna Marion Freeman who had been one of the original cast of women who entered Princeton in September 1969. A good all-around athlete, Lynch had played tennis, field hockey, softball, basketball and lacrosse at Concord and had arrived at Princeton for her junior year hoping to find a forum in which she could compete in at least some of those sports. There had been a brief attempt to assemble enough field hockey players to at least play practice games, and Betty Constable, a five-time national champion in squash who also was a good field hockey player, had volunteered to run the sessions. But not nearly enough women had shown up to field a team, and throughout the remainder of that academic year, organized women’s athletics at Princeton effectively did not exist, nor was there any reason for aspiring female student-athletes like Lynch to realistically expect the situation to change any time soon. Desperate to be part of some team, even if it wasn’t part of Princeton athletics, Lynch wound up joining a local field hockey team, which called itself the Tired Mothers team and was composed of adult members of the nearby Pretty Brook Club, including Constable.

   Now all of a sudden just one year later, Lynch found her situation completely transformed as a member of a varsity women’s team which, for that matter, was the only team in the university to go undefeated during the 1970-71 academic year. She got to practice every afternoon with talented teammates under the tutelage of a knowledgeable coach, playing a fairly full schedule of well-attended matches against other colleges and receiving at season’s-end both a varsity letter sweater and a medal of the kind that the Princeton athletic department handed out to all members of undefeated teams. It really was a remarkable progression that occurred from the first of Lynch’s two years at Princeton to the second. She had actually been one of four female cheerleaders at some of the Princeton football games during her junior year, and to one year later have crowds cheering for her and her teammates was an especially sweet turnaround.


   The women’s tennis team’s virtually immediate popularity may have been best encapsulated one afternoon that spring when both the men’s and women’s tennis team had home matches. At the time, the Pagoda Tennis Courts (also known as the University Courts), had two tiers of 10 total clay courts, four in the first tier and six in the second. The Nos. 1 though 4 men’s matches were assigned to the first tier, which was near a hill where spectators could easily watch their matches, while the women’s matches in the second tier were well out of convenient viewing range. However, so many spectators left the hill and started heading to the second tier of courts to watch Gengler, Novakova and their teammates play that Coach Conroy, reacting to what he saw was happening, interceded and had the Gengler and Novakova matches moved to the best-located courts on the front tier, thereby pushing the Nos. 3 and 4 men’s matches to the second tier. “I had to bow to the women’s lob in this case,” he quipped afterwards. Conroy was well into his 60’s by that time and due to announce his retirement from coaching just a few months later (after his 1971 team had sent him out in style with a championship season).  In his capacity as part of the Department of Athletics administration in addition to being the head men’s tennis coach, he was from the start so supportive of women’s athletics in general and the women’s tennis team in particular that the team members affectionately referred to him as “Papa John.”

  Shortly after that dual meet, Princeton shut out previously undefeated Yale. Coach Kraft characterized the Elis as “the most polished, well trained, sophisticated, up to date and organized opponent we have faced so far,” but they still were no match for the Tigers. This was the first time that the players appeared in something resembling team uniforms, as they all wore socks (purchased by Eve Kraft at the U-Store) with orange and black pompoms (i.e. each player wore one sock with a black pompom and the other sock with an orange pompom) and braided their hair with orange and black ribbons. The two stars that first season, Gengler and Novakova, were an interesting contrast in styles. Gengler had been highly ranked in junior tennis almost from the time she started playing as a 10-year-old at the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, Long Island, and she was also steeped in the Princeton tradition. Her maternal grandfather, John Logan, Princeton Class of 1913, had been the biggest lineman and an all-American on Princeton’s 1912 football team, and her father (Herbert ’31) and uncle (Arthur ’33) were both Princeton graduates. Marjory and her younger sister Louise (who was due to enter Princeton the following autumn as a member of the Class of 1975) had helped carry the class banner as young children during the P-rade festivities at their father’s 25th class reunion in 1956.

   Novakova, on the other hand, had been in the process of earning a degree at Charles University in Prague (one of the most venerable universities in all of Europe, founded in 1347) but left the country five days after the Russian invasion in 1968. She first spent time in England and then worked as a governess for a family in Connecticut before seeing Princeton for the first time during a whirlwind bus tour of the country. The University agreed to act as her sponsor and to hire her to teach two courses in conversational Czech in her capacity as a Visiting Lecturer. One of Novakova’s key allies during this time of transition was History Professor James Billington, Princeton Class of 1950, who helped to get her visa issues resolved and invited her to stay with his family at their residence in Princeton. “I became a member of their family,” she gratefully recalled many years later.

   After eight months, during which she resumed her tennis playing at the indoor courts at Jadwin (often hitting with Princeton men’s team member Harold Rabinovitz), she walked into the Registrar’s Office in April 1970 to apply for admission as a transfer student. As it happened, a few weeks earlier she had been hitting alone against a backboard near the outdoor courts when she was invited to join a doubles game. When Novakova arrived at the Admissions Office, the person conducting the interview was William Bowen, Princeton’s Dean of Admissions at the time (later the University’s 17th President from 1972-88), who recognized her immediately since he had been one of the players in the doubles game she had joined! She was admitted as a junior majoring in Slavic study and spent her remaining time at Princeton as both a visiting lecturer/teacher and student, all the while playing high up on the varsity tennis team.


    At the season-ending Middle States Intercollegiate tennis tournament in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (in which Princeton finished first), Novakova, an excellent all-around athlete who had competed in skiing and swimming as well as tennis during her years in Czechoslovakia, was awarded a special trophy “for dedication to the sport” and was elected captain for the 1971-72 season. She was presented the award by Frank Hammond, who is generally regarded as the world’s first professional tennis umpire and who had refereed one of Novakova’s matches during the weekend. With Novakova down one set and trailing 5-2, 30-all in the second, her opponent had hit a ball that Hammond called out, whereupon Novakova over-ruled him, saying that the ball had hit the line and thereby giving her opponent a match-point. Although Novakova had then rallied to win the match, her gesture of sportsmanship was one of the weekend’s more memorable moments and her selection for the award was roundly applauded by everyone in attendance.

   After the season ended, Gengler received a white sweater, which as part of a longstanding Princeton athletic tradition is only given out to captains of undefeated teams. Both she and Novakova then journeyed in early June to compete in the national collegiate individual championships in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The altitude affected the ball’s flight so severely that Novakova’s first few strokes caused it to fly clear over the fence, forcing her to dramatically adjust her swing in order to keep it in play. She tended to undercut the ball with her swing, which in that altitude propelled it skyward, whereas Gengler, who was seeded fifth and considered a dark horse to win the tournament, hit more of a flat ball and hence had an easier time adjusting to the effects of the altitude. After returning from New Mexico, Novakova spent the summer of 1971 working at Amherst in the tennis camp run by Harry Hopman, the legendary captain of Australia’s Davis Cup team.

1988 Men's Championship Run

  By the time the ECAC tournament rolled around in mid-October, the varsity tennis team was able to get past the sadness of these two deaths and record a respectable second-place finish, behind only West Virginia. Hentschel triumphed in the B Singles draw, avenging his Spring 1987 loss to Yale’s David Gollob in the final, and two freshmen, Greg Finck and Lyle Menendez, had solid debuts as well. Finck teamed up with Leschly to win the C Doubles and Menendez reached the final of the C Singles. Finck, Menendez and seven of their teammates then competed in the Rolex Eastern Regional tournament, hosted by Princeton, to vie for a berth in the ITCA/Rolex National Indoor Championships in Minnesota in February. Hentschel, unseeded but  playing with newfound confidence after his triumphant run in the ECAC event, advanced all the way to the final, beating several prominent players along the way, including Harvard star Arkie Engle. He thereby guaranteed himself an invitation to compete in Minnesota, as did Princeton women’s star Diana Gardner. Hentschel would later term those two Autumn 1987 performances as the turning point of his Princeton career. His tennis achievements had been somewhat limited during his freshman and sophomore years, but he would become a key contributor to Princeton’s extraordinary springtime surge to the 1988 EITA championship, earning first-team all-Ivy honors along the way, before then serving as the tri-captain and the No. 1 player as a senior.


    The two promising freshmen both acquitted themselves well in the Rolex Eastern Regional event, giving no notice of the degree to which their time at Princeton and beyond would land them at opposite ends of the spectrum. Finck became a two-time captain, member of Princeton’s 1988 EITA championship team and 1990 George Church Trophy recipient. By contrast, the 1987 ECAC and ITCA/Rolex Eastern Regional events turned out to be the full extent of Menendez’s Princeton tennis career. Before autumn was out, he was expelled for a year for cheating (he copied another student’s psychology lab report). Even though Menendez was therefore not a part of Princeton’s EITA champion 1988 team, the Daily Princetonian article covering the title-clinching match had a “looking ahead” paragraph at the end which cited his presence back in autumn and listed him as someone who would likely make a big contribution in 1989. His family, which had moved to Los Angeles shortly before Menendez entered Princeton, did host the team during its spring-break West Coast trip in March 1989 --- in the same house on Elm Street in Beverly Hills in which Lyle Menendez and his younger brother Erik murdered their parents, Jose and Kitty, five months later. Both Menendez brothers would eventually be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

   The 1988 spring-break trip gave no augury of the triumphs that lay ahead. The team, “blinded by California sun and formidable opponents,” according to Prince reporter Isaac Silverman’s write-up, went winless in five attempts, and then lost for a sixth straight time (a team record for consecutive losses that still stands) at home against West Virginia. During the trip to California, there was one night when O.J. Simpson, a friend of the family of one of the team members, met the team at Helena’s, a posh restaurant in Los Angeles, accompanied by his friends Marcus Allen, the Hall of Fame running back, and Allen “A. C.” Cowlings, later notorious as the driver of the white Bronco in the June 1994 slow-motion police car chase that transfixed the nation. There was a line going around the block, but Simpson’s celebrity was enough to get the entire contingent immediately ushered in and seated at a dinner table in a private room. At one point, a patron, upon learning that the people with Simpson were the members of the Princeton tennis team, asked him how good the team was. Simpson’s response --- that they were the best unranked team in the country --- became a bit of a team slogan for the remainder of that season.  Later that evening, several team members accompanied Allen to his home, where he showed them his black Ferrari and his Heisman Trophy in a glass case. At one point during that visit, he played the song “Lean On Me,” by the group Club Nouveau on his record player. It was a popular hit song on the pop charts at the time, and the players adopted it as a team anthem of sorts, which was especially fitting in light of the close-knit nature and interdependence among the team members that many of them years later would cite as a major factor in the extraordinary success that awaited them later that spring.

    Shortly after the West Coast trip ended, Princeton was shut out by West Virginia. But from that point onward, beginning with the EITA season-opening 8-1 win against Penn, the Tigers, with a starting six of Leschly, Hentschel, Steiglehner, Harrison, Pack and Finck, embarked on a 10-1 run blemished only by a loss to non-conference Georgia and featuring five shut-outs. After the home weekend shut-outs of Yale and Brown (which was postponed one day to let the Bruins recover from a team-wide food-poisoning episode), Coach Benjamin praised the cohesion that pervaded the entire roster. Yale had been expected to contend for the EITA title, and when the Princeton team members won all 15 matches played that day (10 singles and five doubles, even though only the first six singles and three doubles matches counted in the official EITA 9-0 score), they knew that they might have a very special spring. “We have a very team-oriented group,” Benjamin said. “They care about each other and the team. We always play better as the year goes on, so it’s a good sign to play well this early in the season. We practiced hard over the intersession and have become much better players. And we feel we can still play a lot better.”  The loss to Georgia was balanced by an uplifting 5-4 win over Florida (ranked 22nd nationally) in which the Orange and Black, trailing 4-2 after the singles, swept the doubles without dropping a single set. It was the only time in the Princeton careers of the senior class that they rescued a dual meet with a doubles sweep after trailing 4-2 when the singles matches were over. The victorious tandems were Leschly/Harrison (who won the last match of the afternoon), Finck/Steiglehner and Pack teamed with sophomore Louis Marx III. Even the loss to Georgia on the Bulldogs’ home turf in Athens had a bright spot in the form of Leschly’s comeback 6-7, 6-2, 6-0 win over Georgia No. 1 Al Parker, one of the top-10 players in all of college tennis at the time.

  In late April, Princeton had a 6-0 EITA record, with three crucial matches remaining in a compressed five-day period --- against Columbia, Harvard and Dartmouth --- all on the road. Wary of playing Columbia in its clay-court bubble, where Princeton hadn’t triumphed since 1980, Benjamin had his players practice on the clay courts at the Pagoda during the prior week. In addition, on the day before the dual meet, Louis Marx’s father booked several clay courts at his tennis club in New York, and the team practiced for several hours on those courts before spending that night at Mr. Marx’s spacious brownstone and making the short trip to Columbia’s campus the following morning.  The courts at Mr. Marx’s club were hard and fast, as clay courts go, much closer in consistency to the Columbia courts than anywhere else the team could have practiced, and these multi-front advance preparations paid off with a split of the singles matches and a sweep of the doubles without the loss of a set.

    Perhaps the key match of the day was Pack’s 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) win over Columbia No. 5 Jose Biaggi. At the time, Columbia led 2-0, and a win by Biaggi would have given Columbia a sweep of the first tier of matches and put the Lions in a commanding position. When Pack had visited Princeton on his recruiting trip as a high-school senior in April 1984, he had stayed with Princeton freshman Tim Main, who just days earlier had (with partner Ted Farnsworth) lost the deciding doubles match of Princeton’s 5-4 road loss to Columbia after the Tigers had led 4-2 going into the doubles. A still-distraught Main had railed about the treacheries of the Columbia bubble and, as Pack (who had not played in the 1986 dual meet at Columbia’s bubble) was playing against Biaggi, he was acutely aware (a) that his current team badly needed to avoid going down 3-0, and (b) that he had an opportunity to redeem Main’s frustration. Both Benjamin and 1986 Princeton captain John Bartos were camping out near his court during the final set, and on every change-over, Pack told them that he was not coming off that court without a victory.

     Trailing 5-3 in the final set, Pack rallied from there, energized by an extraordinary reflex-volley at break-point against him that looped over Biaggi’s head and landed just inside the baseline. Biaggi was able to run it down, but he could only muster up a weak return that Pack volleyed away. “I’ve watched a lot of tennis here,” he said afterwards. “So I felt great when I finally got a chance to play. Being down 5-3 in the third set, I think my win helped the rest of the guys and set the tone for the whole dual meet.” Benjamin called Pack “a great competitor and a vital part of the team.” Harrison and Marx then won their singles matches, setting the stage for Princeton’s domination of the doubles.

  The Tigers then lost 5-1 in Cambridge to a Harvard team that had suffered through a rare down season that it was determined to redeem by avenging its 1987 dual-meet loss to Princeton. The Orange and Black cause that day was significantly worsened by a severe case of intestinal flu that affected Hentschel and Finck, both of whom had to spend several nights in midweek at the McCosh Health Center. Hentschel had recovered enough to accompany his teammates on the bus ride up to Cambridge on the morning before the dual meet. Finck had intended to check out of McCosh as well in time to make the bus, but he was still so dehydrated that he actually passed out on his way to the check-out area and was therefore not allowed to leave. He did fly up the following day but he was nowhere near at full strength and played so listlessly that Coach Benjamin used Marx in the sixth slot against Dartmouth the following day. Marx had also played in that position against Columbia and had come through with an important win. Leschly managed to defeat Harvard freshman sensation John Cardi in three sets, but it was Princeton’s only point of the day. Harvard No. 2 Mark Leschly, Jacob’s younger brother, was one of four Crimson players to win his match in three sets in what his coach Dave Fish termed “one of the most absolutely incredible turnaround matches that I've been a part of during my 12 years here….I told the guys that they were going to have their day, I just didn't know when." For its part, the Orange and Black may have been, to quote one of the players, “a little too scared to grasp the golden ring.” With the dual-meet outcome determined after the singles, Coach Benjamin wisely decided not to send his doubles teams out in order to save them for the Dartmouth match the following day.


  Some of the Harvard players made immature statements in the glow of their upset victory.  Paul Palandjian said, “If Princeton is the tigers, then we are the Harvard zookeepers,” while his fellow co-captain Arkie Engle foolishly likened “the enormity of this victory” to Villanova’s win over the monstrous Georgetown “Hoya Paranoia” team in the final of the 1985 NCAA basketball championships. That iconic game determined which school became the national team champion, while in this case, Princeton still could --- and did --- capture the EITA title outright, even after losing to Harvard, with a win in Hanover. In between those two dual meets there was a Princeton team meeting at the hotel in Cambridge during which Coach Benjamin delivered a speech that several players later credited for causing them to put the Harvard loss behind them and fully refocus to the Dartmouth match that lay immediately ahead. “David did an incredible job of turning us around mentally,” Pack said years later. “None of us felt good about the way we had played when that meeting began. But by the time we left that room, he had us motivated and excited about the incredible opportunity to make history that was still right in front of us.”

   Leschly, Harrison and Marx (subbing, as noted, for Finck) gave Princeton a split of the singles matches. When Steiglehner and O’Dwyer, reunited for this match after playing with other partners during most of that season, won their third doubles match and Leschly/Harrison lost, this dual meet, just as had happened in the finale against Harvard one year earlier, came down to the final set of the final match of the day. And just as Harrison and Tim Main had come through at Lenz in 1987, Pack and Hentschel persevered to a 6-7, 6-2, 6-2 win at second doubles over Dartmouth’s Patrick Perry and James Savarese. That match was the last to finish by a wide margin, since Hentschel had to be taken to the Dartmouth training facility after losing his singles match to get his sprained ankle re-taped. He had played through the injury throughout the last few weeks of the season, but the tape had loosened during the course of his singles match. By the time the third set began, all of the other evenly-divided matches had ended.

   Hentschel and his fellow Michigander Pack had known each other for more than a decade, and had even won a 10-and-under Detroit-area doubles tournament together in 1976. It was the first tennis trophy that Hentschel had ever won. But neither of them could have foreseen that, a dozen years later, they would be playing the decisive match in Princeton’s bid for EITA supremacy. They had gone undefeated in EITA play during the 1988 season and, once they hit their stride early in the second set, they played at too high a level for their Dartmouth opponents to handle. There were two crossroads moments during the third set. The first occurred when the Princeton pairing had a break-point early in the set at three points apiece. The players conferred as to who should receive the serve and decided that it would be Hentschel, who had just hit a serve-return winner on the previous point. But, just as they were about to return to their positions, they saw Benjamin on the sideline. He was shaking his head and pointing towards Pack in a clear indication that Benjamin wanted Pack to receive the serve. Benjamin had shown confidence in Pack on multiple occasions --- including welcoming Pack back onto the team after his brief junior-year sabbatical and putting him in the starting singles lineup against Harvard later that season --- and Pack had always lived up to his coach’s trust. He did so this time as well by hitting a good serve-return that enabled Princeton to grab the early edge in that set.

    The second important exchange happened  when, with Hentschel serving at 4-2, the game became tied at 3-all, thereby giving the Dartmouth pair a chance to get the match back on serve if they could win the next point. Savarese hit a good low serve-return at a charging Hentschel, who nevertheless executed a difficult volley at his feet that handcuffed Savarese, forcing him to hit his response into the net. Buoyed by this exchange, and now ahead 5-2, Pack and Hentschel then broke serve to close out the match.  It was a fitting conclusion to a season characterized by team unity and propelled by clutch doubles play. So was the fact that there were seven different team members who won at least one match that day. “Basically, the team effort there summed up the season,” said Harrison, whose 8-1 EITA singles record was the best on the team. Harrison’s excellence in doubles, which Benjamin had praised after the 1987 win over Harvard, was explicitly cited by Hentschel for the role it played in elevating the entire team’s confidence. Doubles had been a Princeton weakness not too many years earlier, and Harrison’s ability to win doubles matches with a variety of teammates had made each of them in turn more confident that they could win with whoever was their partner in a given match.

   Harrison, who had grown up in Hong Kong, had won the Asian Junior Doubles Championship and reached the junior Wimbledon doubles semifinals (with Kester Ng) in 1985, shortly before entering Princeton. Even as early as his freshman year, when he was named co-winner of the Richard Swinnerton Trophy with O’Dwyer, Harrison played first doubles, in each year with the No. 1 singles player (Bartos in ’86, Main in ’87 and Leschly in ’88) as his partner. Besides being a great volleyer, Harrison possessed an uncanny sixth sense for knowing when to poach, to the point where it noticeably would get into the heads of the opponents and affect their level of play. Harrison had been the last singles match on court the day before against Harvard, and after (barely) losing his match to Roger Berry, which accounted for Harvard’s  fifth point, he felt that he had let his teammates down by depriving them of the opportunity to rescue the dual meet by sweeping the doubles. But, in retrospect, he realized that it had been a blessing in disguise, since it gave everyone a chance to rest and have extra energy to draw upon down the stretch in the clincher against Dartmouth.

   Coach Benjamin called his crew “a team of overachievers, a bunch of clutch players,” adding, “No one expected us to win it but us.” The co-captains Steiglehner and Leschly echoed those sentiments, attributing the degree to which the team was so close-knit to the fact that there was no dominant player, nor were there any unduly strong personalities, clashing egos or hyper-aggressive challenge matches. Rather, it was a harmonious, no-drama collection of players who competed as a cohesive group and worked hard for and with each other.  This created an environment in which it didn’t really matter who was playing where in the lineup. Both co-captains explicitly cited Ron Jacobe, who rarely played in the dual meets, as being as valuable as any team member, citing Jacobe’s admirable attitude at practice (“he worked harder than anybody,” Leschly said) and the degree to which he motivated his teammates. Pack said something very similar about Harrison’s extremely positive effect on team dynamics and the way that his humility rubbed off on his teammates and made them  devoted to a higher cause than their own individual aspirations. Other team members were also praised for contributing to how bonded the 1988 team was, especially during that exhilarating run to the EITA championship. Harrison’s summary of this phenomenon was, “We all had each other’s backs.”


     Leschly, who won the Leon Lapidus Award for the second straight year for having achieved the “highest degree of excellence” of any team member, went on to say that he didn’t really think of himself as having had a “tennis career” per se at Princeton. Instead he viewed his years on the team as having been a phenomenal experience hanging out with a group of remarkable peers who have remained friends throughout the multiple decades since their EITA championship run. It is a fitting tribute to how cohesive that team was that the 1988 George Myers Church Trophy “to that member of the Princeton varsity tennis squad who has done the most to advance the interests of tennis at Princeton” was given, for the first and only time in its history, not to any one player or small group of players, but rather to “the Princeton men’s varsity tennis team.” In 2018, there was a 30-year anniversary celebration of the 1988 EITA championship that was attended by almost every 1988 team member, even though a few had to travel from different continents to be there. That was also true of the nearly 100% team attendance at Harrison’s wedding --- in Singapore, a half a world away --- in 1998, a full decade after that championship season. Furthermore, during most years, anywhere between five and ten of the members of that team make a point of getting together at a restaurant in Manhattan during the Christmas holidays. Their achievement, marking the 24th time that Princeton tennis had won the EITA championship either shared or outright, has gained even more admiration over the three-decades-plus that have followed as  a result of the fact that no Princeton men’s tennis team has been able to emulate that feat since the 1988 team completed its riveting run to glory.