Northwestern Men's Tennis coach Arvid Swan had spoken for years of trying to elevate his program to a level where it could compete for Big Ten championships. Since taking the job in 2008, he'd made serious progress. He guided Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament win in 15 years in 2013. But he hadn't yet pieced together a unit that had the goods to capture the conference championship.
That could all change this year. No. 14 Northwestern sits at 23-2 and holds a perfect 9-0 mark in Big Ten play. One loss was a 4-3 nail-bitter to then 2nd-ranked TCU. The other came to longtime rival Illinois, but the Wildcats later avenged that loss in front of one of the rowdiest crowds you'll see at any sporting event.
So how did the program make that leap forward?
Surely Swan's insistence on cultivating a competitive atmosphere at each and every practice has played a role. So has the leadership of the team's two seniors, Fedor Baev and Mihir Kumar. But in an individual sport like tennis, there's only so much coaching and leadership can accomplish. Swan can give general tactical advice, but each point is its own animal; Swan can't design plays like a basketball or football coach can. The players are, to a certain extent, left to their own devices. A college tennis team must have elite individual players to be an elite team.
That's why it was so important that four elite individuals came to Evanston in the fall of 2013.
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"Those guys are the Big Three. They're LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh," Alp Horoz jokes. "Me, I'm more like Mario Chalmers."
Horoz, one of four juniors, is referring to the other three, his classmates, the three-headed monster of Konrad Zieba, Sam Shropshire and Strong Kirchheimer. They're the top three single players on this year's team. Zieba is, according to the most recent ITA singles rankings, the 16th best player in the country. Shropshire is No. 41. Kirchheimer is No. 78. Those three are a combined 61-16 this season and are a giant reason Northwestern's matchup at Ohio State this Friday will likely decide the Big Ten regular season champion.
Zieba, Shropshire and Kirchheimer were each listed as "Blue Chip" recruits by TennisRecruiting.net. The class was pegged as the eighth best recruiting class in college tennis that year. What made it unique though were the journeys of its members. Zieba is from down the road in Glenview, Illinois. Shropshire is from Philadelphia. Kirchheimer is from Cary, North Carolina. Horoz is originally from Turkey, but played high school tennis in Florida. All were aware of one another as they participated in elite junior tournaments, but all took their own paths to a common destination.
Upon arriving in Evanston, the four made a pact to bring a competitiveness to each and every practice, to push each other and the rest of the team to constantly improve. And while there was never any explicit goal to have their class be the one that elevates the program, bringing that attitude has rubbed off on the rest of the team.
"They're a major reason we're making the jump," Swan says. "They all lead because their work ethic is unbelievable. Those guys just don't have bad practices."
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"Each of those guys have their own leadership and playing style," Swan says. "But all four have weapons in their game."
Kirchheimer might be the most competitive athlete — if not student, in general — at Northwestern. His desire to win is almost tangible, his self-belief and determination clearly visible in every match. He plays with a blithe disregard for the score; it doesn't matter if he's 4-0 down or 4-0 up. His 25-3 mark is the second-best individual season in Northwestern tennis history.
"When we came in we just wanted to make everything competitive," Kirchheimer says, employing the word that best describes himself. Competitive. "We try to raise the level."
Shropshire looks like he was genetically engineered to play tennis. He's a solid 6-foot-2 with long arms, but he's wiry strong and solid from both sides off the ground. Shropshire glides around the court like a gazelle. It's as if his movement is so efficient that the constant cutting and stopping on the asphalt doesn't put even an ounce of stress on his joints. When Shropshire wins a point, it's almost anticlimactic, as though it's supposed to happen rather than might.
"Shrop is one of our captains and has had a leadership role since freshman year, really," Swan recalls.
Zieba's first two years on campus were plagued by injury. He had a solid year last year, playing mostly No. 3 singles, but it wasn't until this fall that Zieba, finally healthy, started to play the type of tennis he's capable of. He beat six ranked opponents in the fall and came all the way from the play-in draw to reach the semifinals of the ITA Indoor All-American Challenge.
Zieba kills you with consistency and a machine of a backhand. That stroke is a controlled whip, a routinized exertion of force. The word 'stroke' really doesn't do it any justice. Zieba will lull you into a baseline battle before capitalizing on any short ball or opportunity that comes his way. He's been ranked as high as No. 8 this season and has been a stalwart at the top singles spot all year.
"His confidence has gone through the roof," Swan says of his star junior. "The biggest jump for him has been the belief that he's absolutely one of the elite players in college tennis."
And then there's Horoz, whose hometown of Istanbul is 5,700 miles from Evanston. He partners with Mihir Kumar at No. 3 doubles and toils away at No. 5 singles, yet somehow finds a way to carve out enough time to pursue an engineering degree.
"He never makes any excuses," Swan says with pride in his voice. "It's always 100 percent."
These four juniors have joined Swan on a journey that's in its third and most successful year yet. Northwestern knew it had a solid team coming into conference play, but the Big Ten is a whole different animal. Plus, the conference season started with a date against traditional powerhouse Illinois, which had beaten Northwestern 27 straight times. Twenty-seven.
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The March 12 match against Illinois was Northwestern Tennis' symbolic coming-out party, a bold display of what this year's team was capable of. lllinois came into the match ranked No. 8 in the country with two singles players, Aleks Vukic and Jared Hiltzik, ranked inside the top 10 nationally.
There must have been at least 300 people packed into the upstairs seating of the indoor Combe Tennis Center inside the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion. The crowd was — well, let's just say you should forget everything you associate with tennis fans. Crowds at professional tennis events are diplomatic; clapping after unforced errors is frowned upon and cheering a double fault is blasphemous. At a college tennis match, nothing is off limits. There's never a quiet moment. Vaguely personal insults are aplenty, and unforced errors and double faults alike are met with unapologetic applause. College tennis crowds are more fraternity than country club.
"I personally don't think the crowds at professional tennis events get me excited," Swan says. "[The college crowds] make our sport a lot more enjoyable to watch."
Northwestern won two of the three doubles matches against Illinois and earned the all-important doubles point. There are three doubles matches, but only one point available to the winner of two of the three. Then there are six singles matches, each of which counts for one point. Zieba and Kirchheimer lost in singles, but Horoz cruised to victory and Shropshire beat No. 8 Hiltzik. It all came down to freshman Ben Vandixhorn, who won 6-2 in the third set to give NU the victory.
The Wildcats followed up that historic victory with eight consecutive wins in conference play, and sit tied atop the standings with Ohio State. The first loss to Illinois came outside of conference play. Northwestern has beaten 13 ranked opponents and has impressive losses, yet currently sits at No.14 in the rankings.
That's significant, because the top 16 teams host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Last year, Northwestern entered the tournament as the No. 28 seed and had to travel to Norman, Oklahoma to take on the No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners (they fell in the round of 32, 4-1). With home court advantage being a legitimate factor in college tennis, hosting the first two rounds goes a long way to booking a ticket to the final rounds.
Neither the four juniors nor Swan would take the bait and claim the team is underrated, though many around the program do believe so. The most you'll get is, "We can't control the rankings."
If Northwestern finds a way to upset No. 4 Ohio State on the road and follow it up with a win at Penn State to take the Big Ten championship, it's hard to see any scenario in which Northwestern doesn't finish in the top 16. How they'll fare remains to be seen, but hosting the first two rounds would be a concrete testament to the program's progress — progress that has been expedited by Zieba, Shropshire, Kirchheimer and Horoz.