Any progress is better than no progress…right?
Northwestern’s men’s tennis team, for the life of it, can not seem to best the University of Michigan. The only upside is that the squad’s margin of defeat shrinks each time they take on the Maize and Blue.
For the ‘Cats, who had a first-round bye, the Big Ten tournament started this past Friday with a quarterfinal game against Wisconsin. A hefty win there moved them onto a semifinal battle against the Wolverines — the third duel between the two squads this year.
Northwestern, ranked No. 26 by the ITA, has experienced near-unprecedented levels of success within the program this season. This group of rackets has swung its way to the best regular season record NU has posted in eight years. In 28 games, the ‘Cats only dropped nine — two of those were to Michigan, a 4-0 sweep and a 4-1 whimpering.
Each game matters significantly more in postseason play, and losses to bitter rivals carry even more weight; however, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s recap the bright spot of the ‘Cats’ abbreviated Big Ten tourney performance: a 4-1 W against Wisconsin.
The No. 56 Badgers never got a grip on the singles category. On Court 1, grad student Steve Forman continued to overwhelm the opposing team’s top dog. This time the victim was Wisconsin’s Jared Pratt, who Forman took care of in two sets. Pratt joins an illustrious list of opponents who have fallen to Forman this season, headlined by multiple ITA top-50 players and many All-Americans.
In the three other games that finished, NU took care of business. Ivan Yatsuk, the ‘Cats’ Court 2 aficionado, pulled out one of his most clutch performances, beating Mihailo Popovic in a tiebreaker to win the match. Trice Pickens and Gleb Blekher won in the No. 4 and No. 6 slots, respectively.
In doubles play, Wisconsin won both games that reached the finish line — a slightly worrisome but generally inconsequential result, given that the team result goes in the record book.
Enter No. 7 Michigan.
Taking on the Wolverines for the second time in three matches, Northwestern needed this win, as a ticket to the Big Ten finals was waiting for the winner of Saturday’s matinee.
Five of the six singles matches finished, and all of the duels were competitive — a first in the lopsided rivalry. Michigan has easily whooped Northwestern set after set in this season’s prior matchups.
Michigan head coach Adam Steinberg gameplanned around NU’s superstar, challenging him with Ondrej Style, who was ranked No. 6 in ITA’s singles rankings as recently as April. In the two teams’ last battle a little more than a week ago, Forman defeated Michigan’s traditional No. 1, Andrew Fenty. In what felt like an eternity, Forman dropped his first match on Court 1 this time.
Otherwise, Yatsuk and Blekher nabbed wins on Court 2 and Court 6. With Pickens losing on Court 3, the match came down to Simen Bratholm squaring off against Michigan’s Patrick Maloney. A valiant effort from Bratholm wasn’t enough, as Maloney claimed the win for the Wolverines in three competitive sets.
So if it isn’t clear: Northwestern hasn’t beaten Michigan, but the daunting task looks more and more achievable each time the two teams compete; it’s promising to know NU has the firepower to trade shots with the best of them.
What’s next? May Madness. The NCAA released its 64-team bracket on Monday, setting the stage for Northwestern’s Cinderella run. In a fitting rematch from March Madness, the ‘Cats will take on UCLA in Lexington, Kentucky, in the Round of 64. A win in tennis looks far more achievable than in basketball, as the Bruins are 12-10 and ranked No. 36.
The two teams will match up on Friday at 9 a.m. CT.