CAMBRIDGE, Mass.- Balancing the responsibilities of varsity college athletics and academics can prove challenging for many student-athletes. Through a team culture dedicated to accountability, perseverance and encouragement, the Harvard men's tennis team has mastered navigating the complexities of succeeding both on and off the court.
Seniors Xavier Gonzalez, Grant Solomon, Kenny Tao and Jean Thirouin have set a precedent for years to come as a class full of character and pride for their athletic and academic accomplishments both as a team and individuals. Through a rigorous schedule of high performance on court training and academic commitments, the four men have fostered a connection between athletics and academics that has amounted to immense growth.
"I'm so proud of our graduating seniors. I always remind our guys that they are the navy-seals of college athletes," stated associate head coach Andrew Rueb. "These four graduates are perfect examples of that kind of drive for excellence both on and off the court. They have proved that college athletics can be a complimentary endeavor to their academic pursuits. It is not a zero-sum game as some would like to portray it."
Xavier Gonzalez is among only four Harvard students who earned the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship this year. Gonzalez will proudly represent the United States, joining 31 other Americans chosen from 866 nominees and 299 colleges and universities worldwide. Graduating with a concentration in mathematics, Gonzalez plans to pursue a Master of Science by research in mathematics at Oxford. Additionally, Gonzalez holds an all-time 15-4 singles record in his career at Harvard.
"In addition to a hunger for competitive excellence, Harvard men's tennis fostered a spirit of intellectual exploration," stated Gonzalez. "This culture starts at the top: Coach Fish uses the English language to its fullest with the most poetic of metaphors, while Coach Rueb once started practice with a soliloquy from Shakespeare. But love of learning permeates the whole team and influences our discussions at team meals. My favorite recollection of this spirit of academic inquiry came when one of my teammates asked me to explain my math course. He wasn't a math major so I had to be creative about how I explained the subject, but after a long lunch in which I was energized by his persistent curiosity I found I understood the subject even better myself!"
Grant Solomon's academic pedigree speaks for itself, as the senior will continue to further his education at Georgetown Law School next year. Solomon will graduate from Harvard with a concentration in Romance Languages and Literatures: Latin American and recently received the Susan Anthony Potter Prize in Spanish Literature of the Golden Age for his first-place essay submission. An exceptionally high-level player, Solomon completed his senior season at Harvard with a 20-14 overall singles record and 17-12 doubles mark.
"I think the culture we've built here emphasized growth as a human being and everything that entails; pushing each other in the classroom and helping others find their academic passions is a huge part of our team experience and for that, I will be forever grateful," stated Solomon. "We are fortunate to have a diverse group of concentrators, which really stimulated overall intellectual curiosity and the engaging discussions we have."
Kenny Tao has had a remarkable career in both athletics and academics in his four years. An applied mathematics concentrator with a computer science minor, Tao plans to begin his career in sales and trading at Deutsche Bank in NYC post-graduation. A captain his senior year, Tao was a first team All-Ivy selection in both singles and doubles during his junior and senior seasons and was named the ITA Northeast Senior Player of the Year, while amassing a 16-4 singles record with a 17-12 doubles mark and consistently dominating top-ranked opponents across the country at No. 1 singles and doubles.
"Our culture has always been to understand we are people with interests outside of tennis," stated Tao. "Being able to explore that interest helps our players see tennis as a joy rather than a duty which definitely helps to keep us from getting burned out. Our coaches encourage us to pursue our intellectual growth as well which helped create the culture of learning on our team."
"When the No. 1 player on the team is doing applied math and a secondary in computer science, there are few, if any, excuses for why you can't succeed in both realms," stated Rueb. "And remember, Kenny was 13-3 at No. 1 and was up in the third set with the USC top dog in the second round of the NCAA Tournament."
Jean Thirouin, a three-time ITA Scholar-Athlete, has led the Crimson as a two-time captain his junior and senior seasons. With his exemplary leadership skills, Thirouin has illustrated how a strong work ethic and fortitude can lead to success as the senior has consistently played at the top of the Crimson's lineup. Graduating with a concentration in economics, Thirouin will take his talents to the next level post-graduation, pursuing a professional tennis career. A second team All-Ivy selection in doubles this season, Thirouin has accumulated a 16-13 overall singles record with a 19-12 doubles mark.
"HMT made me feel at home from the very first day and that feeling only increased throughout the four years," stated Thirouin. "This was important not only on court but also off court. It helped ease the transition to college by providing a tight-knit support group. Playing tennis also allowed us to temporarily escape the "bubble" and as we always say, "leave school on the other side of the river". However, I wouldn't say that playing tennis meant escaping academics completely. The team culture that the coaches fostered was always one of character growth and development."
The Class of 2018 has been a driving force in the Crimson's success during its tenure by establishing a team culture of excellence in both academics and athletics. The four men have a combined GPA of 3.80 and have contributed to an Ivy League title in 2017 as well as NCAA Tournament appearances in 2015 and 2018.
"I think this group has made academic success as part of the core identity of HMT," stated Rueb. "We had a team meeting this fall to review each player's performances when one of the seniors spoke up about a player not putting forth full effort on his studies. That is a moment I won't soon forget! But it only makes sense that it should be part of the discussion as we talk a lot about getting 1% better every day - why not point out when someone is dogging it in the classroom!"