When a close loss to Baylor over spring break ended their eight-game winning streak, the Northwestern women’s tennis team just decided to start another one. Now, after winning six straight in conference play, including the program’s first victory over Michigan since 2014, a Big Ten regular season title seems imminent for the Wildcats (17-4, 10-0 Big Ten).
In a nine-day stretch, No. 12 Northwestern rolled over Maryland and Rutgers before taking close matches over Michigan State and Michigan. The clash with the Wolverines pitted the only two remaining undefeated teams in the Big Ten against each other, and the match lived up to its billing.
First, as they have done so often this year, the Wildcats picked up the all-important doubles point, with the dynamite pairing of Erin Larner and Maddie Lipp dominating their set and the team of Lee Or and Alex Chatt joining them in the winners column.
In singles action, the competition was markedly tougher. Larner, who has dominated of late at the #1 spot, took the first win of her career over Michigan star Kate Fahey (ranked 29th nationally) in straight sets, but Or fell to defending national singles champion Brienne Minor and Lipp suffered a rare defeat at #3. Sophomore transfer Julie Byrne lost as well in one of her first matches at #4. Though freshman Inci Ogut saved the match with a win at #5, things looked very dire for senior Alex Chatt, who faced three match points late in the third set. Nevertheless, Chatt staved off all three, and outlasted Mira Ruder-Hook in the eventual tiebreaker.
After their emotional, comeback win in Ann Arbor, the Wildcats decimated back-to-back opponents at home this past weekend. They beat bottom-feeder Wisconsin 7-0 before destroying a Minnesota team that has had Big Ten success this year by a score of 6-1. Over the weekend, Northwestern combined to drop just four out of 26 singles sets and one out of five doubles sets, rounding fully into form as the season approaches its conclusion.
Notably, Larner has received back-to-back Big Ten Player Of The Week awards. The senior has won each of the ten singles matches she’s played at #1, five out of six at #2, 13 out of 15 doubles sets alongside Lipp, and 12 singles matches in a row overall. She’s the clear-cut best player in the Big Ten right now, and is currently ranked as the 39th-best singles player in the country.
Larner and Lipp are ranked fourth in the country in doubles as well, with the second team of Chatt and Or ranked at 25th. Both teams, along with Lipp and Larner in singles, have very good chances of making it to the individual NCAA championships. Lipp was the last Northwestern player to make the NCAA individuals tournament back in 2016, with Chatt joining her as a doubles partner in 2016 and 2017.
This weekend, Northwestern has their last two matches on the regular season slate, as they face middling Penn State before their season finale against a dangerous Ohio State group. The Buckeyes have won the Big Ten in each of the last two years and had a team take last year’s national doubles title, but are trending downwards this season. One out of two wins would guarantee the Wildcats a title share, but a sweep would give them sole ownership of the regular season championship for the first time since 2009. Michigan, at 9-1 in conference play, faces Michigan State on Saturday to wrap up its season.
The Wildcats are a lock for the NCAA Tournament as a team, but in the 64-team tournament, seeding is important. Right now, Northwestern is ranked 12th overall in a bracket with 16 officially seeded teams. If they win out, including the Big Ten Tournament, they would have a distinct chance at being one of the top two seeds in their region. That, in turn, would put them in great position for a program first: a final four.
With the postseason rapidly approaching, coach Claire Pollard and her core group of seniors are primed for their first Big Ten title since 2014. They look ready to accomplish a whole lot more.