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Institute's tennis team ranks among top eight in nation

Eric Chen in game action.
Eric Chen in game action.
Photo / Al Porreria

Eric Chen, who entered MIT at the age of 16, has not only survived four years to earn the SB in economics -- he has thrived, becoming the most decorated tennis player the Institute has ever produced and leading the Engineers to a place in the top eight teams in the nation.

At the NCAA national tournament in Kalamazoo, MI two weeks ago, Mr. Chen only added to his many laurels. In the team competition, he defeated the University of California at Santa Cruz's best player, who was ranked first in the country in Division III. In the individual portion of the tournament, Mr. Chen advanced further than any MIT player ever has, winning two rounds and earning All-America status for the third consecutive year. And finally, he topped off his stellar collegiate career by earning the national Arthur Ashe Award for Sportsmanship.

Mr. Chen arrived on campus as a freshman from the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut and stepped right into the number one singles and doubles position at MIT. The Topeka, KS native had toyed with the idea of attending a tennis school, but the lure of an MIT education and the prodding of his parents tilted the scales in MIT's favor.

"Sports is parallel to other things in life," said Mr. Chen. "You work hard, you meet challenges, you become a better competitor, and you learn to keep your temperament in check. Tennis has helped me keep balance."

"Eric was very mature when he came to MIT, and he has consistently displayed that," said Associate Professor of Physical Education Jeff Hamilton, the men's tennis coach and winner of the Division III Coach of the Year Award.

Mr. Chen's other awards include the GTE College Sports Information Directors Academic All&endash;America team, and the MIT Athletic Department's Howard Johnson Award given to the male senior athlete of the year. Twice he has been named to the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) All-Conference team as number one in singles. He was the number two ranked player in Division III in the East Region, and MIT has nominated him for a prestigious NCAA postgraduate scholarship.

"Eric's development has been amazing. We threw him to the wolves as a 16-year-old and he has improved every year," said Coach Hamilton, referring to the older and larger competitors Mr. Chen faced on the court.

The men's tennis team finished the season with a 23-2 record, winning its first 21 matches. It was the runaway winner of the NEWMAC regular season and tournament championships, not losing a set in any conference match for the second consecutive year. MIT was the number one ranked Division III team in the east, and this year for the first time, hosted the regional round of the NCAA Tournament.

During that and other tournaments, Mr. Chen displayed the sportsmanship that has earned him much respect. For instance, last fall when MIT hosted the New England Division III Rolex Tournament, he stuck with the team long past the call of duty.

"It was Homecoming weekend and Eric's matches were long since finished," said Coach Hamilton. "That evening he had plans to attend a semiformal with his girlfriend. As the tournament wound down for the day, a pair of our freshmen were playing an extended doubles match which was lasting well into the night. Eric not only attended the match to lend his support, but he stayed until the very end, delaying his social plans for the evening. It was one of the most selfless acts I have seen from any team captain in my time at MIT."

As Mr. Chen has developed and improved, so has the team. His freshman year, the team was ranked in the top 20 in the country; in his sophomore year it was 19th, then 18th his junior year and now in the top eight.

"It's rewarding to work hard and achieve at a high level. I'm very proud of the fact that we have gone from just an above average team to a very good team," said Mr. Chen.

Like their male counterparts, the women Engineers have done remarkably well this year. They won the NEWMAC championship and qualified for the NCAA National Championship tournament. Despite losing to Williams College in the first round, their 18-4 final record was the best in the 25-year history of MIT's women's tennis program.

Mealani Nakamura, a senior in mechanical engineering, helped lead the women to their best season ever and was named winner of the East Region Arthur Ashe Award. She also was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association East Region Senior Player of the Year.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 31, 2000.

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