It seemed like a great idea at the time. Erin Larner and Alex Chatt, playing in a summer event at Notre Dame following their senior year of high school, decided that they wanted to play doubles together, just for fun.
“We were wearing our Northwestern clothes, thinking we were really cool,” Larner said. “We were so nerdy and excited to be repping our college.”
Then the tournament began.
“We actually started doing quite well, just cruising, and then we got to this one match and just lost five games in a row. Like, we could not play together. It was the funniest thing,” Chatt said. “And ever since then, we’ve never played together. Claire [Pollard, the HC] hasn’t even thought about putting us together.”
Despite not having a chance to team up on the court, Chatt and Larner, the two true seniors graduating this year, have helped lead the program back to the top of the Big Ten. After 16 consecutive years with a conference title of some form, the women’s tennis team went trophy-less for the first three years of each senior’s career. But along with Maddie Lipp, a redshirt senior and the only current member of the team who was previously part of a conference championship squad, the dynamic duo have propelled the team back to a regular season Big Ten Championship, with more still to come. Northwestern women’s tennis, now ranked No. 13 in the nation, went undefeated in conference play in the regular season and will host an NCAA Tournament Regional this afternoon.
The bedrock of Northwestern’s success this year comes from doubles. In collegiate tennis, you must win a best-of-seven match with six singles matches and one doubles point. Because singles can often be rather predictable, the one-set shootout between three doubles teams often proves the difference in close ties.
“It’s funny, we both have had good doubles since we’ve been here. We’ve both been ranked pretty high,” Larner noted. “Now, we just kind of laugh and joke about ‘the disaster.’”
Northwestern has one of the deepest squads in the country when it comes to doubles. Larner and Chatt may not have played together during their time in the program, but each has paired with Lipp to significant success.
This season, Larner moved up to the No. 1 slot with Lipp. They are the No. 4 doubles team in the country. Alex Chatt is now at No. 2 doubles with Lee Or, a pairing also ranked comfortably in the top 40. The three seniors have also backed it up with consistently great singles performances.
But beyond their play, it’s the unique personalities of the three leaders that has brought one of the the closest teams on campus back to the Big Ten championship, and potentially to new heights.
It’s easy to forget that Lipp, who sports a subdued on-court demeanor and an atypical two-handed forehand, was the highest-ranked recruit on the current team. The fifth-year senior grew up in Lake Forest, Ill. and picked up an early offer from Coach Pollard. As her stock rose, she eventually ended up as the 4th-ranked 2013 recruit in the country. Even as the big names began to offer, Pollard’s persistence paid off in the end: “I think she’s seen almost every one of my tennis matches since I was 12,” Lipp said. “I just respect her so much, and the time she puts into recruiting to make it personal.”
At the time, the team Lipp committed to had won 15 straight Big Ten Championships (counting regular season and tournament trophies), dominating the conference thoroughly. And in her freshman year, that success continued. She didn’t play a huge role on that team, but did help earn the doubles point in the Big Ten Tournament Final, when the Wildcats defeated Michigan to earn another Big Ten Championship.
However, in the fall of her sophomore year, the storybook start to Lipp’s career was shattered.
“I tore my labrum all the way through, and my bicep. They found that [bicep tear] when they went in for surgery. So, I couldn’t really lift my arm,” Lipp recalled. “I gave myself a week to be upset, and then I was like, ‘OK, this is such a good opportunity, I’m gonna have the best comeback ever and dedicate 100% to tennis.’”
There’s no question that she came back with a vengeance. Lipp says she came back from her injury with her non-dominant left shoulder stronger than her right, and she has now been a part of the All-Big Ten team in each of the last three years, dominating doubles competition and playing at a top-50 level in singles. She has had clutch showings in years past, including a comeback win over 2017 national champion Brienne Minor in her sophomore year that was the deciding point in a win over No. 10 Michigan, but this year she truly stepped up her game. Playing at either the second and third slot in singles, the two year captain has gone a career-best 17-5 while teaming with Larner to post a 17-3 record in doubles.
Her success comes despite having to juggle an “intense” Chicago-based Kellogg Masters program with a full practice schedule and her leadership responsibilities. “It’s been super demanding, to have to go straight from practice to downtown, but I think it has helped my mentality. I only have X amount of time, and I have to get everything done. It’s kept me healthy.”
“She has the best work ethic on the team, and it’s so important for our young kids to see,” Claire Pollard said.
But despite Lipp’s stoic on-court demeanor and tenaciousness during practice and matches alike, the veteran brings some much-needed levity to the locker room.
“Maddie’s really funny. There’s a lot of funny stories,” Larner said. “Any moment that your with her, she’s going to make you crack up somehow.”
That bond between Lipp and her teammates has clearly manifested itself in her goals for the year. Before the conclusion of the Big Ten regular season, she compared this season to her freshman year, and took note of some distinct changes. “This year’s championship would mean a little more to me, because this year’s group...we’re just so close. It’s something special we have, so I think this year’s championship, if we get it done, which we will, would mean a lot more to me.”
The Wildcats did, in fact, get it done in the regular season, and despite a tough loss in the Big Ten Tournament Finals, they’ve achieved their first goal: the championship that Maddie Lipp so desperately wanted for her teammates.
Despite the enormous contrast between their playing styles and on-court personalities, Lipp and Chatt somehow made it through two full years as a highly-ranked doubles team.
“Me and Maddie were polar opposites on the court,” said Chatt. “I like to be loud, I like to get the crowd going...we’ve had times where we’d been up against a good team, about to close it out, and I’d be like ‘Maddie, let’s go, let’s go’ and she just says ‘Chatt, calm down.’ I’d be like ‘What do you mean calm down?’”
The fiery senior, who attended Lyons Township High School, always had Northwestern in her sights. “Everyone knew Claire in the area, she has this really good reputation. I actually never really thought I was even good enough to play here.” She was considering Michigan for a time due to family connections, but after she visited Evanston, she cancelled the rest of her visits.
Chatt committed incredibly early: she was the second player in her class to commit anywhere and she never considered breaking her pledge to the Wildcats. She was joined later in the cycle by Larner and current redshirt junior Rheeya Doshi, but Chatt was clearly on equal footing with her fellow senior thanks to her power and ball-striking ability.
And in her freshman year, she lived up to that billing. Splitting time between the third, fourth, and fifth spots in singles, she went 19-5 on the year, and dominated in doubles as well. Over the next two years, her singles record leveled off a bit, but she more than made up for it with outstanding doubles play, reaching the NCAA Tournament with Lipp two years in a row.
This year, however, Chatt has had to make some sacrifices. Larner’s incredible improvement has garnered her a spot on the top doubles team, relegating Chatt to second-team duties with Lee Or, and inconsistent individual play (along with a late-season surge from transfer Julie Byrne) has led to the first singles matches of her career in the sixth slot.
“The biggest sacrifice was definitely doubles. Going from the unquestioned one to the unquestioned two, that was hard at first...I had to switch my priorities,” Chatt said. “I’m glad I did it. It’s all about the team at the end of the day, and I don’t think it could’ve been a smarter decision.”
Another thing that made the transition easier for the senior is her relationship with Pollard, who often seems to mirror Chatt more than any other player on the team.
“We bicker a lot, she calls me out,” Chatt said. “She’s probably the hardest on me of the team. But we’re honest with each other, and that’s what makes our relationship so special. I’m so lucky to have her, because she’s been the most important adult in my life over the past four years.”
“Chatt’s the enthusiasm, she’s the energizer on our team,” Pollard said. “I’m a little tougher than some of the other coaches [in the rest of the country], and when the kid buys into that, I know they’re going to do well here.”
The bond between the two is so close that after a particularly taxing run of singles performances, Chatt sent Pollard an essay-length email about all of the problems she was having on the court after watching video of herself. Immediately, the coach picked up the phone, and the two chatted for half an hour about how she could improve.
After re-evaluating her position within the team, Chatt knew she had to find other ways to contribute. And even though she knew making the NCAA Tournament as a singles or doubles competitor was a long shot, the slots that she plays in often lend her matches a lot of importance in team play.
Over their three year Big Ten title drought, the Wildcats have gone through their share of heartbreakers, with Chatt in the middle of most of them. “I can’t even count how many times in my career I’ve been the deciding match and I was the one who lost it for the team.”
But this year, things have been different. Starting with a brilliant comeback to win the de-facto regular season championship against Michigan and extending through a clincher in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals against reigning champion Ohio State, the senior has played the role of finisher that so often eluded her before.
She got the job done, through significant pain, against the two teams that have taken the Big Ten Championship from Northwestern over the past three years. Chatt said that she was cramping through the entire last six games against Michigan, and seemed to be laboring late against the Buckeyes as well.
But her leadership has extended well past those dramatic clinchers. “Chatt has a great personality. She’s so fun, and I don’t know what the team would do without her,” said Lipp. “We need to have that peppy, outgoing person.”
“I’m the energizer bunny,” Chatt said. “I’ve gotta be the one who keeps everyone going.”
As Lipp and Larner have stepped into the spotlight, Chatt has had to move backward. But despite the changes, the hard-hitting senior has continued to make a difference for and take a key leadership role for the Wildcats.
If Lipp’s quiet, workmanlike attitude and Chatt’s brash, aggressive on-court demeanor represent two ends of a spectrum, then Erin Larner certainly tries to walk the tightrope between them.
“Maddie’s a lot more quiet. Chatt is really loud, but it works for her and it’s great and we love her energy,” she opined. “I can wear myself out energy-wise if I try to be Chatt, but if I try to be Maddie I’m not really dialed in.”
Chatt’s one-time high school doubles partner has taken another path towards senior leadership. Larner, who was the top high school recruit out of the Pacific Northwest, turned a slow start to her first college season into becoming the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
She’s only improved since, becoming only the seventh player in Northwestern’s storied history to be named All-Big Ten in all four seasons. And despite all of her success, Larner’s best season has come this year: she’s 16-2 in singles and 17-3 in doubles, and that doesn’t even include a number of near-wins in matches that never concluded.
If you ask her teammates, she owes all of her success to the winter break of her first year.
“Rheeya and Chatt were laughing with me about it one day,” Larner related. “They were like, ‘You came back from Christmas break one day and something suddenly clicked...I didn’t really do anything different whatsoever, except practice and whatnot, but...I think [my freshman year improvement] was a combination of a lot of things.”
Regardless of the reason behind her improvement, Larner has clearly stepped into the leadership role that comes with being the best player on the team.
“I actually do remember beating her, because now, she’s obviously amazing,” said Chatt, who beat Larner in the semifinals of the same tournament that contained the doubles fiasco. “She’s vocal, but the thing that she does the best is set an example. I mean, she kills it at one. How can you beat that?”
Stop us if you've heard this before: @LarnerErin is the @bigten Athlete of the Week. It's the third time she's earned the honor this season. #B1GCats— NU Women's Tennis (@NUWildcatTennis) April 17, 2018
: https://t.co/ZVUcPU0KVf pic.twitter.com/kmBQuf7ks9
Northwestern’s sole representative at the NCAA singles tournament this year, Larner’s repeated and consistent improvement is emblematic of Northwestern’s program ideals.
So much so, in fact, that she says it was part of what sold her on Evanston in the first place: “I felt like a lot of the girls here were still willing to work really hard and to get better, and that’s the kind of program I wanted to be a part of...I don’t think that’s something you can say of all college programs.”
Coach Pollard clearly sees the reflection of these values in Larner as her best player’s most important aspect. “I can’t think of a player who has gotten more out of themselves in their four years since I’ve been here.”
That’s high praise from the five-time Big Ten Coach of the year, and someone who coached eight straight Big Ten Players of the year, including Cristelle Grier, who achieved the feat thrice, and Maria Mosolova, who did it twice. Both players eventually turned pro.
Larner’s offseason work is apparent when you watch her play. After focusing on her serve this past summer, she’s turned it into a weapon nearly as devastating as her powerful forehand. And despite her on-court grimaces and self-admonitions, Larner, who ripped off 13 straight wins to end the regular season, seems to be putting the pieces together at the right time.
But like Lipp and Chatt, team success is first and foremost for the star senior.
“The last three seasons, when we haven’t gotten Big Ten Championships, have been a major disappointment. Everyone wants to have their best season in their senior year, so [the Championship] is huge for me,” Larner said.
After playing mostly one during her sophomore and junior seasons, Larner started this year at two. But when her team needed her to fill a void at the top, she came through, and her huge individual seasons in both singles and doubles have combined with her own brand of leadership to be a vital piece of Northwestern’s rediscovered success.
“All three of them lead in a different way,” Pollard said of her senior captains. “Each one of them, if you add them together, is a really powerful tool. You know, leadership isn’t easy...and I think they’ve done a really good job of finding that balance.”
On a team as small as any college tennis program must be, it seems easy for individual players to grow unmotivated or fail to form a tight bond with their teammates. But Northwestern’s balanced senior leaders help create a culture in which constant hard work is a must, even as mistakes are forgiven and interpersonal relationships remain strong.
From a strategic point of view, these connections clearly give the Wildcats an edge over other teams. “We embrace it as a team culture. We just work really hard, that’s what we do,” Larner said. “I remember when Julie [Byrne, a sophomore transfer from Oklahoma] came over in September, she was like ‘Wow, these girls are working so hard, day in and day out.’ And that wasn’t something she necessarily saw from the older girls [at Oklahoma] last year.”
But even from a more emotional perspective, the team culture clearly means something special to the seniors.
“The girls are just so close. The camaraderie on the team is something unexplainable. I could genuinely call anyone on the team to vent to, or to get dinner with, and you just don’t see that. It’s something so special we have with this team,” Chatt said.
“It feels like I’m at home when I’m at SPAC with my team. They’re my family,” added Lipp. “I’m not a super emotional person, but there were times when one of my teammates or coaches would check in with me and I would tear up, because having a small group that cares that much means the world to me.”
The Wildcats have used their multifaceted leadership and improved individual performances to coast to a Big Ten regular season championship, even if Michigan upset them in the conference tournament final. But that territory has been charted over and over by past Northwestern squads. Dominance in the Big Ten, though it took some time to get back on top, has been a staple of Pollard’s 20 years with the program.
The one hurdle that Northwestern women’s tennis hasn’t been able to jump begins this afternoon against Buffalo. The 14th-seeded Wildcats will be heavily favored to win that matchup, and have a pretty good chance to get out of the Second Round for the first time since 2014 with a home match Saturday against either Kentucky (who they beat earlier this year) or Kansas State. From there, though, things will truly begin to get difficult, and a program that has never been past the national quarterfinals will be hard-pressed to do it this year. With No. 3 Duke probably awaiting them in the round of 16 and impressive teams strewn across the bracket, this veteran Northwestern squad will have an uphill climb ahead of them to make history.
But this team has shown, at its best, capability to do just that. They have wins against top-ranked Vanderbilt and No. 4 Georgia Tech. Can Lipp, Larner, Chatt, and the rest of this tight-knit, talented team make an unprecedented run?
“Yeah, I think we can. We have the ability to make it really far, we just have to do it,” Lipp said.
Who is to say that they can’t?