As temperatures in Evanston have begun to climb, Northwestern men’s and women’s tennis have also heated up.
After taking down No. 63 Penn State and Chicago State, the No. 23 men’s group extended its winning streak to five with dominant road victories over Indiana and Purdue, as well as a tight 4-3 win over then-No. 23 Illinois at the Vandy Christie Tennis Center on April 8. The women’s squad finished off a brutal seven-match stretch — in which it faced seven top-75 teams in a row and four top-10 opponents — with a home defeat at the hands of No. 5 Michigan on April 1. However, the ‘Cats proceeded to rip off three straight Big Ten wins over Michigan State, Maryland and Rutgers.
To beat the Hoosiers 5-1 on March 31, Northwestern took all five singles matches after Indiana claimed the doubles point. Steven Forman, Presley Theineman and Felix Norby each picked up two-set victories, while Simen Bratholm had the most thrilling win of the day in a three-set comeback over Luka Vukovic.
Three days later, the men’s team soundly beat Purdue 4-0. Forman and Bratholm clinched the doubles point with a 7-5 win before Theineman, Nordby and Trice Pickens each won in two sets. Considering the Boilermakers entered the match at 2-12, the result wasn’t especially shocking, but it gave the team solid momentum heading into their tilt against Illinois.
The Illini squad featured two top-55 doubles teams and a top-40 player in Karlis Ozolins, so the ‘Cats would have their hands full. However, Bratholm and Forman took down Ozolins and Hunter Heck 6-2 to establish a lead in doubles. Illinois’ Mathias Debru and Oliver Okonkwo responded with a win over Gleb Blekher and Ivan Yatsuk by the same score, but Pickens and Natan Spear earned the doubles point with a 6-3 triumph.
That proved to be crucial, as Illinois took the first two singles matchups to claim the lead. Surprisingly, Heck easily took care of Forman, ranked No. 54, in straight sets. But Yatsuk pulled off an upset of his own, defeating No. 38 Ozolins in straight sets. Pickens earned another two-set win to give NU a 3-2 edge, but Illinois junior Alex Petrov evened the score with a three-set victory over Bratholm.
That left the result in the hands of Blekher and Nic Meister, whose match went down to the wire. Both of the first two sets came down to tiebreakers, with each player taking one apiece to force the match to go the distance. It was all Blekher in the third set, though, as he coasted to a 6-1 win to give the ‘Cats the team victory. With the win, they improved to 15-7 on the year and 4-1 in Big Ten play, setting them up well for two more conference matches at home against No. 45 Nebraska and No. 51 Wisconsin on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
The women’s team also fared very nicely. Its 4-0 loss to Michigan wasn’t a huge surprise, as four of the six Wolverines who played in singles were ranked top-65 nationally. With their tough schedule playing a significant factor, it marked Northwestern’s fourth consecutive defeat.
But that didn’t stop the ‘Cats from rebounding the following day against Michigan State, whom they beat 4-1. The duo of Briana Crowley and Maria Shusharina took the first doubles match 6-2, while No. 42 Justine Leong and Clarissa Hand sealed the point with a win by the same score. Shusharina and Hand went on to take their singles matches in straight sets, as did Sydney Pratt. It gave Northwestern a huge win over an MSU team that had also entered the match struggling, which prevented the Wildcats from spiraling toward the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
On April 7, NU built on that momentum by upsetting No. 56 Maryland in College Park. And shockingly, given the Terrapins came in at 14-5 overall, it wasn’t close. Leong and Hand, who had moved up to No. 34 as a duo, clinched the doubles point as they did five days prior. Pratt and Leong extended the Northwestern lead to 3-0 with victories in straight sets, which set up Shusharina to shut the door in two sets, one of which came down to a 7-5 tiebreaker.
Northwestern wasn’t done, as it headed up to Piscataway two days later and defeated Rutgers 4-1. Once again, NU earned the doubles point, and earned three singles wins in straight sets. Shusharina, Hand and Leong secured the final three points, which gave Northwestern a three-match winning streak, its longest of the season.
Although the women’s team is 8-11 overall, that speaks much more about the level of competition it has faced outside of the Big Ten. The ‘Cats are 4-3 in the conference, and have a prime chance to add to that record with a 5-11 Minnesota team — which is winless in the Big Ten — on deck this Friday. With four regular season matches left and No. 21 Wisconsin as Northwestern’s only ranked opponent, the team can edge its way well into the upper half of the conference before the Big Ten Tournament rolls around.