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2022-23 Northwestern men’s tennis post-mortem

A year worth remembering.

For the uninitiated, there’s a storied hypothetical that’s been debated among circles of sports junkies for millennia: would you rather watch your favorite team win a championship once in your life, only for the team to never be half-decent again? Or would you opt to see your team contend for championships year in and year out without ever actually watching them hoist a trophy?

There’s no right answer to that question, but it certainly has led to its fair share of heated fights between friends, fans and rivals. But one of the only methods which might make a meaningful contribution to your answer is a case study.

Take the Northwestern men’s tennis team. In the 77 years in which the NCAA has crowned a school champion, NU has never earned the honor. In fact, the ‘Cats have never even been a runner-up. That’s not to deride Northwestern’s rackets and its smashing capabilities. It couldn’t be further from the idea. Since the turn of the century, the Wildcats have had 15 winning seasons — in many of which, NU tallied over 20 wins. Tournament appearances have been commonplace, and NU rarely loses in the first round of the NCAA Tourney; the program is 6-0 in its last six Round of 64 competitions.

The caveat? Little hardware to show for those blistering regular-season records and early postseason victories. In those last six tournament runs, the ‘Cats’ slipper has never continued to fit, as the team is 0-6 in the accompanying Round of 32 matches.

So there you have it, a case study in championships versus regular season success with sprinklings of postseason accomplishments. Of course, there are a handful of dynasty schools that boast championship-caliber squads on repeat (see: Virginia and USC), but the point is that NU falls squarely into the thick of teams who have never gotten the job done, yet are still fun to watch as a fan.

This season was no different. In fact, Northwestern notched its best regular-season record in eight years. The ‘Cats took the No. 4 team in the country to the wire in the NCAA Tournament. They battled and consistently improved against a highly ranked Michigan squad, who they played three times. They earned multiple ranked wins and cracked the ITA Top 25 on several occasions.

From the start, Northwestern’s roster — a collection of mostly grad students — had its foot on the pedal. In its opening weekend, NU went 3-0, beating Notre Dame and Chicago State in 4-0 sweeps and taking down then-No. 19 NC State, 4-3.

Facing three back-to-back ranked opponents over the next few weekends tested the ‘Cats’ composition. The purple and white endured its first face off against Michigan, a brutal 4-0 defeat. The progress the team made against the Wolverines in the schools’ next two matchups would serve as a litmus test for the strides and development NU would showcase throughout the season.

The other two ranked games came against then-No. 18 Harvard and then-No. 25 Duke. Northwestern experienced its first set of back-to-back losses of the year, when Michigan’s sweep was compounded by a 5-2 defeat on behalf of the Crimson. Maintaining their composure, the ‘Cats went on to take down the Blue Devils in a 4-3 nailbiter — proof of the grit and stamina that resided in the hearts of the team’s top six.

It was generally smooth sailing for the next month, as the team went 5-2 in its next seven with losses coming at the hands of then-No. 42 Memphis (an admitted blemish in the program’s record, but par for the course in a long season with more than 30 games) and No. 11 Columbia.

Another set of back-to-back defeats followed, as then-No. 29 Middle Tennessee and then-No. 2 Ohio State picked up wins against NU. Again, the ‘Cats could have curled in the face of demoralizing losses, but they did just the opposite.

Northwestern went on a tear to finish its season, winning eight straight and nine of its final 10 matches. Included in that long list of crushed opponents was then-No. 23 Illinois and then-No. 45 Nebraska. The wins were impressive in their own right, but they also bolstered the ‘Cats’ conference record, which would eventually be good enough to earn them the No. 3-seed in the Big Ten tournament.

Its exit in the conference tourney came to then-No. 7 Michigan in the semifinals in what was a deceivingly close match. Though the box score denotes a 4-2 loss, a few sets breaking the wrong way is what separated the Wildcats from a next-match-wins situation against their maize and blue foe.

It’s worth noting that in between the two teams’ Jan. 29 and April 29 bouts, they squared off one other time on April 21 — just about a week before their Big Ten matchup. There, the ‘Cats escaped a sweep, losing 4-1, the lone win being courtesy of Steve Forman (more on him in a second) via an intense Court One match.

Fast forward to the NCAA Tournament, and Northwestern drew UCLA in the first round. The ‘Cats took care of business with general ease, winning 4-2 en route to a Round of 32 rematch against Kentucky, who the team lost to last year… Also in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Despite nabbing a 3-1 lead — just one match away from a long-awaited second-round win and a season-in-the-making takedown of a highly ranked opponent — NU couldn’t seal the deal. UK came storming back to win the round, 4-3, and sent the ‘Cats back to Evanston.

The conclusion to a season otherwise highlighted by ranked wins, comeback victories, a month’s-long win streak and tangible progress against high-firing teams was a disappointingly low note. But the season was far from futile.

Steve Forman, a long-ago UM transfer and four-year veteran of NU’s program, cemented his place as an all-time great among Northwestern tennis legends. The Troy, Michigan native assumed Court One in 22 out of his 23 competitions. He beat the No. 4-, No. 11-, No. 42- and No. 82-ranked singles players in the nation.

Ivan Yatsuk, who transferred to NU this season, also put on a clinic more than once. When Yatsuk’s number was called in big moments, the grad student didn’t shy away. He won his games against NC State, Middle Tennessee, Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan and Kentucky.

Court Three belonged mostly to Simen Bratholm, who stayed at NU for all five of his seasons. Bratholm had a tough time establishing consistency, but he earned points for the team in pivotal moments, including games against UCLA and NC State.

Aside from the players out of the top three spots, Trice Pickens, Presley Thieneman and Gleb Blekher shined in moments throughout the year. In fact, Blekher had one of the better postseason runs among any NU player, earning All-Big Ten honors at the conference tournament and winning his Round of 64 and Round of 32 games.

More than a tough-to-watch loss against Kentucky, the hardest pill to swallow is that the ‘Cats’ top four rackets have exhausted their college eligibility and won’t be returning for next season. Forman, Yatsuk, Bratholm and Pickens are all set to depart campus in the spring, leaving the program’s fate up to Thieneman, Blekher, Felix Nordby and others.

After years of diligent work, building Northwestern into a consistent 20-win team, the graduating players deserve all the flowers they can get. It’ll now be up to the underclassmen to continue the upward trend.

This season, more than any, has been a testament to one side of the argument from that earlier hypothetical: that to win consistently, void of championships, isn’t a worthless endeavor. Instead, it offers players, coaches and fans alike the opportunity to cheer and bask in countless regular-season victories, even if they are individually less rewarding than those deep postseason ones. This isn’t to say that aspirations shouldn’t be set on a championship; they most certainly should. But for now, it’s at least been proven that there isn’t a wrong answer to that initial question.