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Tennis: ‘Cats deal with turbulence

The team needs to start stacking wins.

As the season marches on, Northwestern’s men’s tennis team must confront its inconsistency. With the NCAA Tournament kicking off in the first week of May — less than two months from now — the rackets must stabilize what’s been a rocky trajectory dating back to the end of January.

To conclude the month of January, the ‘Cats held the No. 24 spot in the ITA Collegiate Tennis Team Rankings. NU jockeyed its way up to the No. 12 slot in the final edition of the February rankings. Now, eight days into March, the purple guys have tumbled back to No. 19.

The group’s specific ranking is less important than what it represents — volatility. The Northwestern rackets slammed their way to the exterior of the top 10 by notching five wins in six matches, including a victory against No. 25 Duke. Those five wins are marred by a loss to No. 42 Memphis (as of the teams’ match date, Feb. 24, 2023).

Of course, if there were no upsets in college tennis, what would make the sport great? It’s the lopsided defeat (4-1) that demonstrates a larger problem.

The ‘Cats headed to New York City to take on No. 11 Columbia this past Friday, where their weaknesses were pointed out again in a 4-0 loss to the Lions.

The competition was so uneven that half of the singles matches remained unfinished. Columbia won the one-on-ones with no challenge, winning the day’s first three matches — enough to clinch the category before the other games even finished.

Trice Pickens lost to Max Westphal in a relatively uncontested manner, 7-5 and 6-2. Presley Thieneman dropped his match to Nicolas Kotzen without much resistance, 7-6 (7-5) and 6-2. Gleb Blekher fell to Henry Ruger in an uninspiring fashion, 6-4 and 6-2. Steve Forman, the Wildcats’ standout graduate student who’s currently ranked No. 53 in the ITA’s Singles Rankings, was deadlocked with Columbia’s Michael Zheng before the match ended prematurely.

Despite boasting a top 50 doubles team in the nation via Ivan Yatsuk and Simen Bratholm, Northwestern again failed to walk away with even a set win in the duos department.

The ‘Cats stayed in the Ivy League, playing No. 64 Princeton on Saturday. In classic NU tennis fashion, the team bounced back with a sweep of their own versus the Tigers (see: alternating sweeps against Chicago State, Louisville, Arkansas and No. 4 Michigan from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29).

Following a performance against a ranked opponent in which all of Northwestern’s players failed to record a single set win, the time to begin sweating is now. While its record shows a 10-5 record, the team has flailed too often for comfort this season.

The ITA punished Northwestern for the embarrassing loss, dropping them to No. 19 in the set of rankings it released on Tuesday.

Head coach Arvid Swan is left with the task of piecing together a consistent strategy to take down high caliber teams — something NU couldn’t do last season and has failed to do this year. If the purple rackets hope to stay on the court well into May, it’s up to the squad to iron out inconsistency kinks now.

Next up is a matchup against No. 29 Middle Tennessee, which will offer yet another chance to attempt a tune-up against respectable competition. After that is a slate of Big Ten matches, including Ohio State on March 24 and Penn State on March 26.

Tournament season is no longer on the horizon. Instead, Northwestern is headed on a collision course. Whether the ‘Cats brace for impact or choose to meet the challenge head on depends on their performance over the coming weeks.