Axler finds home on court for surging Cats

Ryan M. Daniels

Josh Axler prefers to play tennis matches at home. And a part of his home on Long Island, N.Y., came to his home at school for last weekend’s Iowa victory to take the team out to dinner.

That’s when Axler’s father, the Northwestern men’s tennis team and its coaches chowed down at Dave’s Italian Kitchen to celebrate Josh’s 20th birthday.

This weekend Axler and the Wildcats (9-7, 3-3 Big Ten) play home dual matches against Minnesota and Wisconsin for the final homestand of the season.

“Especially on a nice day, it’s a lively atmosphere,” Axler said. “It’s the best feeling. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Axler has led NU through its recent slump and subsequent rebound with a Big Ten-leading five conference wins at No. 6 singles, including three straight.

“I actually didn’t know until I read it somewhere, so I was happy about that,”Axler said. “Hopefully, I’ll keep that streak going.”

If the forecast holds true on two accounts, the Wildcats (9-7, 3-3 Big Ten) could play their final match ever in the tennis bubble near Ryan Field on Sunday.

“I’m glad to see it go,” junior Jamie Sahara said.

The Cats expect to move this fall into the Combe Tennis Center, part of a renovation to the Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center.

NU can end its home season on a three-match winning streak with a sweep this weekend, coming off a tight 4-3 win Saturday over Iowa.

The Cats suffered through swirling winds, which resulted in the loss of two windguards but also the fifth home win of the season. They have yet to lose outside at the Vandy Christie Center.

Axler and captain Brad Erickson have also won three straight matches together at No. 3 doubles.

This week, the Cats have focused more on singles, after finally finding consistency at doubles.

Sophomore Jackie Jenkins has been a surprising weak link in recent weeks, hindering the team’s singles success. Jenkins has lost seven straight solo matches, five at No. 1 and two at No. 2.

“I just need one match to break through,” Jenkins said.

Iowa was not a good opportunity for him to start a comeback. Jenkins lost 6-0, 6-0 to Big Ten player of the year Tyler Cleveland.

“Playing Cleveland doesn’t help your confidence,” Jenkins said. “Especially when you get bageled by the guy.”

Jenkins will play No. 2 this weekend and captain Brad Erickson will reclaim the top spot.

Another switch has given the doubles lineup new life. Jenkins and sophomore Russell Bennett have won two straight matches at first doubles, taking over for Erickson and former partner Joost Hol.

“We’re used to each other’s games,” Jenkins said. “We looked at moving up (in doubles) as a challenge.”

Danny Westerman, Big Ten player of the week, will lead the Badgers into Evanston off of a decisive No. 1 singles win to clinch a victory over Purdue.

The real showdown will take place on Saturday with the injury-ridden Gophers. Minnesota beat NU 5-2 during the regular season last year and in the second round of the Big Ten tournament.

“We’re definitely looking forward to winning against (Minnesota),” Jenkins said.

Jenkins and Bennett have some history with their doubles opponents – Golden Gophers Jorge Duenas and Harsh Manhad, whom they beat 9-8 (10-8 tiebreak) at No. 2 doubles to help NU to its first point.

“I know they’ll be gunning for us,” Bennett said. “So Jackie and I will definitely be getting up for that one.”

The action starts at noon on Saturday against Minnesota and concludes with a noon matchup with Wisconsin on Sunday.

“We’re getting really focused on Minnesota,” Bennett said, “and then carry that on to Wisconsin.”