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Tennis: It’s tourney time

9-1 in its last 10 regular season matches, NU must keep its momentum going into the postseason.

Cue the dramatics. It’s tournament season for the Northwestern men’s tennis team, and the rackets are as hot as ever. With the Big Ten bracket set, NU, ranked No. 26 by the ITA, will take on Wisconsin in the quarterfinals thanks to an automatic bye. The ‘Cats finished regular season play as the 3-seed in the conference.

What’s propelled Northwestern to such heights — ones it hasn’t reached since 2015, when the team went 26-5 — is an absolute tear through the final 10 games of the exhibition season. Heading into their final two regular-season matchups, the ‘Cats were on an eight-game win streak. Their final two assignments? No. 7 Michigan and No. 66 Michigan State.

First up were the Men in Maize. In the match between the two squads in January, Michigan handily won 4-0. The only higher-ranked team Northwestern had faced heading into the rematch with the Wolverines was No. 2 Ohio State (4-1, loss) back in March. All this to say, Northwestern’s penultimate match was set to be one of its most difficult of the season.

And difficult it was. The Wolverines defeated the Wildcats, 4-1 — an improvement for NU. While better than the sweep it experienced at the claws of Michigan earlier in the year, it still was far from an optimal outcome.

On Court 1, Steven Forman nabbed Northwestern’s only singles win of the day. The grad student won in two sets, 6-2 and 6-3. Andrew Fenty, Forman’s competition, is an ITA All-American and has been ranked as high as No. 6 nationally in singles. Add him to the list of formidable competitors Forman has taken down this season.

Otherwise, the one-on-ones weren’t so generous to NU. Simen Bratholm lost in two sets to Patrick Maloney, Presley Thieneman fell via a tiebreak in the second set to Gavin Young and Gleb Blekher dropped his match to Jacob Bickerseth in another two-set defeat. Ivan Yatsuk and Trice Pickens did not finish their matches.

In doubles play, matches were more contested. Forman and Bratholm left their Court 1 match unfinished, though the pair had taken Michigan’s Fenty and Young to a tiebreaker in the first set. On Court 2, Blekher and Yatsuk were edged out by a Wolverine duo. Natan Spear — NU’s go-to guy in the doubles category — and Pickens couldn’t tally a W against their competition either.

In all, Northwestern, across play styles. only managed one match win against Michigan. However, matches were often close — something that can’t be said of the lopsided duels the teams engaged in back in January. Forman, the team’s top dog, held his own. And if it weren’t for match suspensions, Pickens looked like he was on his way to a singles win of his own.

The subtle momentum NU earned against the men in yellow and white carried over in a more substantial way to its competition with the Spartans. MSU, a less fierce opponent than its in-state rival, lost to Northwestern, 6-1.

On a day where no matches were left unfinished, Northwestern won virtually everything. In six singles games, the Wildcats went 5-1 with the only loss being on Court 2, where Yatsuk was defeated by Max Sheldon. It was a cohesive day for NU — a good tuneup for the sequence of tourneys that awaits.

In doubles play, the ‘Cats clutched the team win, as Blekher and Yatsuk took down Reed Crocker and Kazuki Matsuno of Michigan State, 6-4. The Spartans and NU each took one of the first two doubles games, putting the pressure on Blekher and Yatsuk to win.

The team’s final roadtrip likely left the ‘Cats feeling optimistic heading into the postseason. The matches against an extremely talented Michigan squad were closer than the final score would suggest, and Northwestern didn’t play with its food against the Spartans. Now, it’s time to carry the momentum of nine wins in 10 games into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

NU will take on 6-seeded Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarterfinals on Friday at 3 p.m. A win against the Badgers would advance the ‘Cats to a likely face-off against Michigan in the semifinals. Is the third time the charm?