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Tennis: As season winds down, level of play picks up

Conference tournament play begins next week.

The regular season is almost over for Northwestern tennis, but there’s still plenty of action going on in mid-April.

The Northwestern men’s team has been on a tear as of late, currently holding an eight-match winning streak dating back to March 26. The streak, which started when the ‘Cats were just 10-7, has brought them to the No. 26 ranking in the country and the third seed in the Big Ten, behind only Michigan and Illinois. The last three games of the streak were a 4-3 victory over #45 Nebraska, a 4-1 victory against #51 Wisconsin, and a 4-0 sweep of unranked Illinois State.

Against the Cornhuskers, Northwestern needed all the help they could get from singles. The Wildcats lost two of the doubles matches, and the other one didn’t finish. However, the singles dominated. Steven Forman, currently the No. 60 singles player in the country, swept his opponent, and Ivan Yatsuk, who’s been hovering near or in the rankings for a solid month now, bounced back from a first-set loss to win in three. Trice Pickens and Gleb Blekher also earned sweeps, and despite third-set losses from Simen Bratholm and Presley Thieneman, the ‘Cats did enough to survive a tough Nebraska team.

In the Wisconsin matchup, no survival was needed. Bratholm and Forman, nearly a top-60 doubles team this year, defeated their Wisconsin counterparts 6-0. Blekher and Yastuk, themselves ranked 80th in the nation, also earned a 6-0 victory. The doubles dominance meant that despite two unfinished singles matches, Northwestern was able to cruise to an easy victory. Thieneman bounced back by garnering a sweep, and Blekher and Yatsuk both earned sweeps as well. Thanks to the unfinished matches, Pickens was the only Wildcat to lose at all against Wisconsin.

Luckily for the grad student (and the team at large), there was no losing whatsoever against Illinois State. He and Natan Spear earned a 6-2 victory in doubles play, and both would also sweep their opponents in singles play. Forman teamed up with sophomore Felix Nerdy for the first time since February, but they regained their chemistry quickly in a 6-1 win. Yatsuk, as always, was dominant, earning his second consecutive sweep and extending an 8-1 run that dates back to February 26 — there were three unfinished matches in that span. Those were the only events that finished, but they were enough to seal a 4-0 win. Northwestern closes the regular season with two very tough matchups: a Michigan team who swept them back in January this Friday, followed by No. 66 Michigan State on Sunday. After that, it’s Big Ten Tournament time.

Unfortunately for the women’s team, this past week wasn’t as kind to them. They planned on bringing a three-game winning streak into last Friday’s matchup against Minnesota, but the Golden Gophers were dealing with too many injuries to compete in the match. In fact, they have forfeited the rest of the season because the team is down to just three healthy players. The forfeit technically counts as a fifth Big Ten win, but there’s nothing to take away from a day in which no one played. In fact, the forfeit may have been a negative for Northwestern, especially given that at best Minnesota would have competed with four players (something they routinely did over the course of this season). Instead, it was a slightly rusty 74th-ranked Wildcats team walking into Madison to take on the 24th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.

Wisconsin is a top-three team in the Big Ten for a reason, and they proved it against the ‘Cats. Christina Hand and Justine Leong, normally a consistent doubles duo that is ranked 48th in the nation, were unable to finish their match, which proved devastating for a Wildcats team that lost the other two doubles matches 1-6. Singles also proved rough for the Wildcats. Briana Crowley was the first up and was swept 2-6, 1-6. Three matches involving ranked players — Northwestern’s Hand and Wisconsin’s Xinyu Can and Maria Sholokhova — didn’t finish, meaning it was up to the unranked ‘Cats to close the deal.

They could not. Aside from the Crowley sweep, Aino Alike was also swept 2-6, 1-6, and Leong was swept by Wisconsin’s star in Ava Markham. Overall, there was only real danger in two matches for Wisconsin. Sydney Pratt pushed Cai hard, forcing extra games on the first set and garnering a 5-5 tie in the second, but her match didn’t finish. Maria Shusharina also had forced extras in her second set, but the match concluded with the second set knotted at 6-6. Shusharina also lost the first set 1-6, so it’s unlikely she would have won anyway.

There are currently 10 Big Ten teams ahead of Northwestern in the ITA rankings, making this final week of regular season play crucial for the ‘Cats ahead of the conference tournament. On the bright side, they have a two-match homestand this weekend. On the darker side, both opponents — #53 Iowa and #68 Nebraska — are both ranked ahead of Northwestern. The Wildcats do have a very good chance to leapfrog those two teams with wins this weekend, but it will not be easy. Northwestern currently holds a 2-8 record against ranked teams, but both of those ranked wins came at the expense of teams outside the top 50. This means there’s a decent chance Northwestern could win this weekend, especially if singles play picks up. Both men’s and women’s tennis now have one eye on tournament play, but both must be careful to avoid slip-ups against some dangerous opponents this weekend.