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Tennis: Men’s team blows 3-1 lead, loses to Kentucky in Round of 32 in NCAA tournament

If it’s any consolation, the win was at the ‘Cats’ fingertips.

History repeats itself. It’s a lifelong adage that presents itself in history classes and church sermons. It’s also a truth in the world of sports, at least for the Northwestern men’s tennis team.

After a regular season that glimmered with standout wins, top-tier takedowns and riveting comebacks, NU kicked off its run in the NCAA tournament this past weekend. The ‘Cats earned the No. 8 seed in the 16-team Lexington Region, right on par with their No. 28 overall ranking in the ITA’s final regular season rankings.

First up was 9-seed UCLA, who Northwestern squared off with on a Friday morning matinee. UCLA finished 11-10 in the regular season, but the Bruins entered the Round of 64 matchup having lost three straight, including in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.

The losing streak reached its fatal tipping point against Northwestern. The Wildcats pulled out a 4-2 win in what was a match that never was in doubt.

The doubles point went to Northwestern with ease, as the duos of Steve Forman/Simen Bratholm and Ivan Yatsuk/Gleb Blekher won on Courts 1 and 2, both 6-2. The Court 3 match didn’t finish.

In singles play, the team’s usual suspects shined. Forman, the squad’s top racket, slammed Patrick Zahraj in two sets. Bratholm beat Aadarsh Tripathi in two smooth sets. Blekher, who earned All-Big Ten honors in the conference tournament a week earlier, recovered after losing his first set to Timothy Li, picking up the second and third cluster of games. Yatsuk and Presley Thieneman lost their matches on Courts 2 and 5, respectively.

The turnaround was quick for NU who was tasked with battling 1-seeded Kentucky the next day. The context of the contest was pivotal. The purple ‘Cats’ loss in last season’s Round of 32 came at the hands of the blue ‘Cats. Revenge was up for grabs and so was the proof that Northwestern can hang with college tennis’s best.

In its past five tournament appearances, Northwestern made the second round every time. It had not won a single Round 2 game.

Cut to the finish: Northwestern is now 0-6 in its last six Round of 32 games. Kentucky made a miraculous comeback to advance to the next round, winning 4-3.

The doubles point foreshadowed the rest of NU’s day. After Forman and Bratholm won the first doubles match, Trice Pickens/Natan Spear and Blekher/Yatsuk dropped their matches, giving Kentucky the win in the duos department.

It didn’t take long for Northwestern to bounce back in singles play. Playing on Court 2, Yatsuk redeemed his doubles loss with a mightily impressive, two-set win against Alafia Ayeni. Make it 1-1.

The next game to finish was Thieneman’s. The junior followed suit with his Court 2 counterpart. Thieneman won the Court 5 match in two sets. Make it 2-1.

Court 6 was next to close, as Blekher continued his two-week tear with a win against Charlelie Cosnet. Blekher’s clutch gene was on display, as the match went to a third set and the junior emerged victorious, 6-3. Make it 3-1.

For the uninitiated, a team tennis match is won when one team earns four points. You might be thinking, “Oh, that’s great! Northwestern just needs to win one of the next three singles matches to beat one of the best teams in the country and advance to the Sweet 16!” You would be incorrect.

Bratholm won his first set on Court 3 — a promising development. He dropped the next two sets and lost the match, bringing the team score to 3-2. Forman, who has proven his caliber time after time this season, was up next. He too won his first set before losing the next two to Liam Draxl, who’s career-high ATP ranking is No. 330. The score evened, 3-3.

It all came down to Court 4, where Pickens faced Taha Baadi — a senior who’s ranked No. 830 in ATP singles rankings. The NU racket won the first set in a nail-biting tiebreaker. Heading into the final game of the second set, the score was 5-4 in favor of Baadi. Pickens couldn’t equalize, and Baadi took the tenth game. Each team’s season came down to one set on the fourth court. As close as NU came to nabbing its revenge and ending its second-round losing streak, it couldn’t finish the deal; Pickens lost the third set in the same fashion as the second, 6-4.

Against the tough odds it faced — drawing a top-ranked UK team in the second round, having to play on Kentucky’s home court and playing on back-to-back days — Northwestern showed grit and proved it could compete with any competitor.

Record books will show no improvement in Northwestern’s progress between this year and last’s. As hard as the blown 3-1 lead is to swallow, there’s no doubt that the program is and will continue to move in the right direction.