It took most of the last month, but the Northwestern Wildcats are back on the prowl. After finishing February 12 in the ITA rankings, the ‘Cats stumbled hard, sandwiching a sweep of Princeton with rough losses to Columbia and Middle Tennessee. If fans hoped that a nearly two-week layoff would help, they seemed mistaken at first.
Northwestern was demolished by No. 2 Ohio State, 4-1. The loss saw two doubles wins for the ‘Cats, but not a single win in the singles department. Presley Thieneman, Steven Forman, Ivan Yatsuk and Trice Pickens were all swept, and neither Gleb Blekher or Simen Bratholm finished their matches. Things appeared very bleak for the program, which sat at 10-7 and appeared in danger of falling out of the top 25 entirely.
And then, just like that, things shifted. Northwestern was able to sweep No. 63 Penn State, and then followed that up with a sweep of hometown rival Chicago State later the same day, winning back to back matches 4-0.
The consecutive dominations likely saved the team from falling out of the top 25 — the Wildcats currently sit at No. 24 in the latest ITA rankings — and also provide hope for a strong close to the season. With seven of their final eight games in Big Ten play, the ‘Cats need to finish strong in order to guarantee a high seed in the conference tournament.
Against Penn State, Forman bounced back strong with a sweep, and Pickens and Yatsuk won their matches as well, although in slightly tighter fashion. Blekher, Thieneman and Bratholm were unable to finish their contests, but all three appeared on the way to victory before their matches concluded early.
The Chicago State match was more of the same. Theineman, Natan Spear and Max Bengsston all swept their opponents, and all of the unfinished matchups were tilting purple as well. Spear, who was participating in his first singles match in a month, did not appear rusty at all, winning 6-1, 6-3. As for Bengsston, he dominated in what was just the second singles match of his Northwestern career, not allowing his opponent to take a single game. Despite being the third-ranked recruit in the nation, Bengsston saw no action his freshman year. Hopefully this dominant performance is a glimpse of things to come for the sophomore.
Unfortunately for the women’s team, its success has been much harder to come by. After a stretch in which the squad lost five of six matches that stretched from February into March, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared with a 5-2 win over No. 72 Indiana, the third in a set of seven straight ranked opponents for the ‘Cats.
However, that light proved to be an oncoming locomotive named Illinois, Duke and Ohio State. Illinois is currently 34th in the latest ITA rankings, while Duke and Ohio State both sit inside the top 10. A mixture of fatigue and a talent gap doomed the Wildcats as they embarked on another three-game losing streak.
Against the Illini, the ‘Cats were dominated in doubles, but managed to make up ground in singles and nearly earned their first ranked victory of the season. Maria Shusharina and Kiley Rabjohns both garnered sweeps, and after going into deuce during her first set, Justine Leong did as well. However, in the last match of the day, Christina Hand was only able to take the first set before falling in three to seal the Wildcats’ fate.
There was no such drama against Duke. The only Northwestern victory was a doubles match, but the Blue Devils snatched up the other two with ease. To make matters worse, almost none of the singles matches were close. Five different Northwestern players were swept, and the only one who wasn’t was Briana Crowley. Crowley’s match proved to be the most entertaining of the day, as she forced her opponent to go the distance (including three sets with extra games), but couldn’t get over the edge, losing 7-5, 6-7 (3-7), 10-12.
There were no such close frames to be found against Ohio State. The Buckeyes earned three sweeps, which, when combined with two doubles victories, were able to give OSU the win despite numerous unfinished matches. Crowley appeared to be on her way to earning a point for the ‘Cats, but her match did not finish. Leong also almost certainly would have won her match, but like Crowley, was unable to get a finished match.
It may be a tale of two streaks for the tennis program right now, but both teams are faced with similar situations: lots of Big Ten battles the rest of the way. The women’s squad has a home stand against No. 5 Michigan and unranked Michigan State on April 1 and 2 before going on a four-game road trip to face off with Maryland, Rutgers, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
As for the men’s side, they travel to the Hoosier State to take on Indiana and Purdue on March 31 and April 2 before welcoming Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Illinois State to town over the middle of April. There are no ranked opponents in that stretch for the ‘Cats, meaning they should be able to keep a high ranking as long as they avoid the slipups that plagued them in January and February.
One team fighting to get back into the NCAA tournament, the other fighting to close their season strong and potentially make some noise in the Big Ten tournament. It should be a fun April for the tennis program.