Northwestern’s men’s tennis team has won six straight matches, most recently having captured back-to-back wins against two top 50 opponents (No. 23 Illinois and No. 45 Nebraska). The ‘Cats, now No. 23 in the ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings, are peaking at the right time.
The Big Ten tournament awaits two weeks from now in Bloomington, Indiana. After that, three weeks of NCAA tournament play take place, culminating in a championship match down in Lake Nona, Florida. Whether NU will make it that far in the bracket remains in question, but now’s as good a chance as any for the Wildcats to make a run.
Last year, Northwestern was bounced in the first weekend of NCAAs, losing in the second round to No. 8 Kentucky, 4-2. The year prior, the team experienced the same fate, falling to No. 4 Texas in Match 2.
Still, the ‘Cats have undoubtedly improved from that 2021 season, when they finished with a 0.636 win percentage, to now (if the season ended today, the team would sit at a 0.696 winning clip). One of the catalysts for such improvement? Experience.
The 2023 starting singles lineup, in some order, has tended to go as follows: Ivan Yatsuk, Steven Forman, Simen Bratholm, Trice Pickens, Presley Thieneman and Gleb Blekher. Graduate students grip four of those six rackets. The correlation in the team’s record with the development of the elder quartet — Yatsuk, Forman, Bratholm and Pickens — has been noticeable.
Yatsuk, who hails from Belarus and transferred from USF to NU for his final year of eligibility, finished his freshman year with a 9-12 record in singles competition. He notched his first ever ranked win as a sophomore. In his third year, Yatsuk notched a 15-9 clip in singles play. Last year, he seemingly took a step back, ending with a losing record in the singles category and calling it quits at South Florida. But this year, as a member of NU’s top 25 squad, Yatsuk has found a home, going 10-6 with appearances on Court 1 and Court 2.
Forman has been the wonderkid at Northwestern since he arrived in 2019. A transfer from University of Michigan, Forman came to NU with an impressive list of high school accolades: 2x Singles State Champion, 3x All-State and the 2018 Mr. Tennis in Michigan. In the two seasons prior to this one, Forman consistently found himself on Court 1, facing the likes of top 20 players in the country. Wins followed, and the transfer student found himself ranked in the ITA’s top 90 collegiate singles players. Now, Forman alternates with Yatsuk for the team’s top spot in singles play.
Bratholm has long been the team’s ace in doubles play, but he’s made good progress as the team’s third option in one-on-one matches. Unlike his two teammates slotted above him, the Norway-native has been at NU his whole career. Familiarity with the coaching staff and steady progress against better competition has sharpened Bratholm’s singles play into a respectable force. In 2021, he was named to the Norwegian Davis Cup Team — one of the country’s best youth tennis teams. This year, Bratholm’s level in singles play, 7-7, but his consistent ability to stick with stiff opponents has made him a valuable asset to the team.
Rounding out the pack of grad students is Trice Pickens, another four-year contributor alongside Bratholm. The North Carolina-native was one of the ‘Cats’ best recruits in program history, ranked No. 21 in his high school class. Pickens has shined on Court 2, Court 6 and everything in between. Truly one of the Wildcats’ most versatile players — also offering quality doubles play — Pickens has been an elite leader in his tenure. This season, he’s a whopping 10-4, having won four of his last five matches and having never lost in back-to-back appearances in 2023.
If you haven’t gotten the point by now, it’s that Northwestern lives and breathes through its grad students. It’s a common trait of many teams — in tennis or in any other domain — to rely on seasoned veterans, but NU’s lack of youth in the starting six is worrisome. Granted, head coach Arvid Swan is merely putting his best guys, who happen to be running out of eligibility, on the court. The concern is that the progress the ‘Cats have made in the last four to five years, having gone from 14-14 in 2018 to what could end up as a 20-7 2023 campaign, might be for nothing if the program exits the year with none of its key contributors and no hardware.
The window to win is now — right now. In a month, the purple and white have the chance to punch their ticket to the NCAA Championships. If not now, then when? It’d be impossible to predict with certainty, but it seems unlikely that a core as strong as the team’s current four grad students will emerge from the woodwork.