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Tennis Phenom Cooper Williams to Transfer to Duke

Cooper Williams was sensational on the court for Harvard during his first year. In a major blow to the Crimson, he'll become a member of the Duke Blue Devils next season.
Cooper Williams was sensational on the court for Harvard during his first year. In a major blow to the Crimson, he'll become a member of the Duke Blue Devils next season. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Star Harvard tennis player Cooper Williams will transfer to Duke, per an announcement posted on Thursday June 6 by the Duke Athletics Instagram.

Williams, who was named the ITA National Rookie of the Year in addition to being an All-American and the highest ranked freshman tennis player in the U.S., made it to the round of 16 in the recent NCAA singles championship. A highly touted recruit when he came out of Dwight Global in New York City, N.Y., Williams was expected to be a linchpin of a rapidly-rising men’s program for the next three years.

In his rookie season, Williams showed the potential which made him a blue-chip prospect: he played his way to a 14-9 record and defeated seven ranked opponents. In earning All-American honors, the Empire State native became the first Crimson rookie to do so since 1998, when future ATP star and former top-five player James Blake ’01 accomplished the feat.

Now, the men’s team will have to try to continue its upward ascent without Williams’s budding talents. After not making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for almost two decades after its 2004 run, Harvard finally advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2023 season, where it lost 4-0 to No. 6 UGA. This year, the Crimson swiftly took down Boston University and Michigan State without dropping a single court during the first weekend. Harvard was ultimately knocked out 4-2 by No. 5 Kentucky in a difficult road environment.

Rising junior Masato Perera, who clinched the Crimson’s Sweet 16 berth with a singles victory against the Trojans, called Williams possibly “the best recruit we’ve ever had.”

“As a freshman, he stepped up as a leader and having him at number one, he earned that spot as a freshman,” Perera said. “Him leaving is very tough.”

Ultimately, Perera expressed support for Williams as he makes the move to Durham, despite the downsides for the team.

“In the end, all the decisions you make should be for yourself,” Perera said. “He’s doing what’s best for him, and I have a lot of respect for him.”

Williams joins the No. 14 Duke team, which lost to the Crimson 4-3 in February. During that match, Williams lost 6-2, 6-4 to 29th-ranked redshirt senior Garrett Johns. In the tournament, Duke stormed past UNC Asheville and No. 20 Alabama during the opening weekend. The Blue Devils were swept by eventual champions and now 1st-ranked TCU in the Sweet 16.

In the ACC, Williams will continue to face stiff competition. The conference features three of the top 10 teams, and with the new addition of Stanford, five of the top 20 teams. At the conclusion of the season, five of the top 25 singles players hailed from programs in the conference, including powerhouses such as UVA and Wake Forest.

William’s departure marks the latest in a string of losses for Harvard Athletics. Malik O. Mack, a Harvard point guard and The Crimson’s Male Rookie of Year, committed to Georgetown — where he is expected to earn up to high six figures through his Name, Image, and Likeness — in April. The talent drain hasn’t only struck among freshmen: another star basketball player who was set to be a key piece for the Crimson as a junior, Chisom Okpara, announced his transfer to Stanford in late May.

Recently, alumni have raised concerns that Harvard’s lack of NIL collectives — which would provide players money through independent booster funding — could tempt top talent to leave for schools offering huge sums of money.

A proposed settlement from the NCAA last month allows revenue-sharing with athletes. This change will likely only further the financial divide between Harvard and other programs.

Despite this, much of the money in NIL is focused on football and men’s basketball, so it is unclear whether Williams stands to make a significant amount of money through NIL, or if it was a motivating factor in his decision to transfer.

Perera said that colleges being able to pay their athletes changes the landscape of recruiting, especially for the Ivy League, which has enshrined a principle of not offering athletic scholarships since signing of the “Ivy Group Agreement” in 1945.

Still, Perera spoke of the benefits of playing college tennis in an environment where many players choose to play on the professional circuit after only a year of college play.

“I personally think that college is an amazing stepping stone if you want to go pro and you’re transitioning,” Perera said. “It’s a really interesting time since you’re young and you can develop significantly as a student and an athlete.”

Despite the setback and increased competitiveness of the Ivy League conference, the Crimson remains undeterred. Perera explained that, “The Ivy League has been getting phenomenal recruits, so we’re going to be tested. Columbia’s very good, Princeton’s very good, Cornell’s very good.”

In the fall, the team will add blue-chip recruit Mitchell Lee out of Tilden Preparatory School in Oakland, Calif. as well highly-ranked international player Peter Benjamin Privara from Slovakia. “I think overall, we’re going to be a very good team, even though we’re graduating our second best player and losing Cooper,” Perera added. “We have a lot of potential, and we’re going to have a very strong season.”

As the first step back to returning to the ITA National Indoor Championships and the NCAA Tournament next season, Harvard will host its own regional against UGA, Texas A&M, and UCLA beginning January 24, 2025 in Cambridge, marking the start of a new era without Williams.

—Staff writer Jack Silvers can be reached at jack.silvers@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Jo Lemann can be reached at jo.lemann@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Praveen Kumar can be reached at praveen.kumar@thecrimson.com.

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