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Tennis: Men Kickstart Season with Seismic Duke Upset, Women Narrowly Fall at Georgia Tech

Saiprakash Goli had ice in his veins

Photo by: Mary Grace Grabill / Northwestern Athletics

In what could turn out to be an inflection point for their season, Men’s Tennis (3-5) secured a thrilling 4-3 upset over No. 8 Duke in the middle leg of their weekend triple-header at the Combe Tennis Center.

The ‘Cats started the weekend out on the wrong foot Friday night, losing 4-0 to Oregon. The match was closer than reflected by the scoreline, with the doubles point being decided by a tiebreak in the No. 2 slot and all three unfinished matches hanging firmly in the balance. Still, it was a disappointing night for NU’s top two singles players, Gleb Blekher and Presley Thieneman, who were dispatched 6-3, 6-3 and 6-2, 6-4 respectively. That loss sent Northwestern down to a disappointing 1-5 on the season heading into Sunday afternoon’s clash with Duke.

From the get-go, it was clear that the Wildcats were on a mission to right their ship. For the first time all season, they claimed the doubles point — the pairings of Blekher and Felix Nordby at No. 1 and Chad Miller and Saiprakash Goli at No. 3 each took their sets 6-4, overcoming a swift loss at No. 2. That result put the pressure on Duke heading into the singles, and the ‘Cats were given a boost when the Blue Devils’ usual No. 2 singles player Pedro Rodenas was not named in their singles lineup after being a part of the No. 1 doubles pairing.

That change may have proved decisive, as the three Duke singles players who were ultimately defeated all played a level up from their normal spots. Blekher at No. 1, Thieneman at No. 2 and Nordby at No. 4 all got off to blistering starts. Thieneman came out absolutely crushing his forehand and easily took the first set 6-2 against lefty Andrew Zhang. After trading breaks early in the second, Thieneman surged ahead, holding from two break points down at 3-2 and not dropping a game from that point on.

Meanwhile, on Court 3, Blekher found his range early on against Duke No. 1 and ATP World No. 483 Garrett Johns, who last November won two consecutive ITF M15s. After breaking early on, Blekher held his nerve and saved two break points to serve out the first set at 6-3. Although he would not go on to win the match, Blekher’s initial exploits seemed to send shockwaves throughout the other five courts and fill Northwestern’s singles players with belief.

Shortly after Thieneman wrapped up his 6-2, 6-2 victory, Nordby delivered a similarly one-sided scoreline, taking down another lefty Andrew Dale 6-3, 6-2 to put Northwestern up 3-0 on the day. That result put Duke’s four remaining players on red alert, with all knowing they needed to win to keep their team alive.

At that point, Johns was about to take his match with Blekher into a third set. Miller, NU’s No. 6 singles, was down a set to Alexander Visser, but had just broken back in the second, which stood at 4-4. At No. 5 singles, Northwestern’s Greyson Casey and Duke’s Jake Krug were about to enter a third set after Casey took the second 6-3. And at No. 3, Goli had just lost the first set to Connor Krug in a tiebreak, but led by an early break in the second.

In other words, four matches hanging on a knife’s edge. Four matches that Duke needed to win. And they so nearly did just that. On Court 1, Jake Krug broke early in the third and held comfortably for the rest of the set, taking it 6-3. As that was happening, Blekher was quickly running out of steam, and Johns stormed back to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Miller found a way to dramatically level his match — winning the second 7-6 (4) — but Visser quickly raced out to a 3-0 lead in the third. With that match seemingly headed the way of the Blue Devils, all eyes turned to No. 3 singles, where Goli had won the second set 6-2. Both sets of players crowded on the neighboring courts, trading chants in between points and getting the crowd involved.

Throughout the third set, Goli was the one putting pressure on Krug’s service games. In fact, he created break points at 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, and 5-5 — 8 in total — and failed to convert each time, often allowing Krug to take control of the crucial points with aggressive forehands. Despite the setbacks, Goli’s body language remained extremely positive, letting out enormous roars after each point won.

After serving to stay in the match twice, Goli forced a tiebreaker that would decide the entire match — Visser having closed out his win minutes earlier. And when it mattered, Goli stayed true to his consistent game style, while Krug’s own game broke down. Krug leapt out to a 3-1 lead, but remarkably netted backhands on four straight points to put Goli up a mini-break. Then at 5-3, Goli came up with a spectacular sliding forehand slice passing shot to set up match point. One clinical serve-and-volley later, and the ‘Cats were mobbing Goli to celebrate an unlikely upset victory.

Later in the day, Northwestern returned to the same courts to take on UIC. This time, it was a far more relaxing affair. The ‘Cats clinched the doubles point before the third match had finished, and Blekher and Thieneman took their opponents to the woodshed, winning 6-0, 6-2 and 6-0, 6-1 respectively. Goli appeared to be worn out from his heroics earlier in the day and was forced to retire down 6-1, 3-1, but Miller finished the job at No. 6 singles, handing NU a 4-1 win over their in-state foes.

For a team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, the beginning of this campaign was mightily disappointing. With a top-10 win now under their belt, the ‘Cats should have the confidence to kick on from here and gain steam before they enter Big Ten play.

Women’s Tennis (4-2) played only one match this weekend, traveling to No. 23 Georgia Tech and falling just short in a 4-3 defeat. Northwestern easily claimed the doubles point, with the No. 2 pairing of Christina Hand and Sydney Pratt winning 6-1, and the No. 3 pairing of Neena Feldman and Autumn Rabjohns winning 6-0.

Hand could not replicate her doubles success in singles, falling to Alejandra Cruz 6-1, 6-1 in No. 3 singles to allow Georgia Tech to level the match. Pratt, NU’s No. 6 singles player, restored the Wildcat lead shortly thereafter, defeating Meera Jesudason 6-3, 6-3. At No. 5, the Yellow Jackets’ Kate Sharabura defeated Jennifer Reister 6-2, 6-3 to level the match once more at 2-2.

In hindsight, Northwestern’s best chance to steal this tie came at No. 1 singles, where Maria Shusharina appeared to be on the receiving end of a hammering, down 6-0, 5-2. However, Shusharina came storming back, winning four consecutive games, before falling short in a second set tiebreak.

Justine Leong gave the ‘Cats some hope, defeating Kylie Blichev 6-4, 6-2 at No. 2 singles, but by that point, the No. 4 match appeared to be a lost cause. After little separated Georgia Tech’s Given Roach and NU’s Kiley Rabjohns for a set, Roach was able to steal it 7-6 (5) and then bageled Rabjohns in the second to seal victory for the Yellow Jackets. After a solid start to the season, Northwestern falls to 4-2.

Women’s Tennis is next in action on Sunday, when they travel to Nashville to face Vanderbilt. Men’s Tennis will be back at the Combe Tennis Center next weekend for another triple-header against Alabama, Clemson and IUPUI.