Men’s Tennis: Big Ten invades Evanston, Northwestern meets Penn State in opener

Abbey Chase

In its best season in more than 10 years, Northwestern has certainly proven itself capable in a tough Big Ten conference.

The Wildcats sit at 7-4 in conference play and will look to improve upon that mark as the rest of the league comes to Evanston for the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2003.

In its last home match, NU fell in 6-1 to Indiana, taking just four sets off the Hoosiers. With the tournament beginning on Thursday, the team has had just a few days to fix its mistakes from Sunday and prepare for the final push.

“You just have to make adjustments,” coach Arvid Swan said. “Particularly if we lost the match during the season, we have to make a lot of adjustments in preparation. In singles especially, the line-ups probably aren’t going to have changed that much, so you have to play the specific players differently than you did the first match. But again, that’s just all about making the right adjustments.”

What failed the Cats last weekend was their doubles play, something they have been able to rely on since the start of their non-conference season in early January. NU has won the doubles point in each of its wins this season except in two conference matches. NU was able to take the win without the doubles point last Friday against Purdue, but the Cats were unable to rebound after dropping the crucial first point against No. 36 Indiana on Sunday.

This year’s conference success has been a team effort, with five players holding winning records in singles play. The lone exception is Josh Graves who, at the highly competitive No. 1 position, has played three players ranked in the top 10 nationally. However, Sidarth Balaji, Alex Pasareanu and Spencer Wolf are 6-5 this season, while Chris Jackman and Raleigh Smith are 7-4.

Players have indicated the Cats have pulled together as a team, something that can be difficult to achieve in a largely individual sport, so it makes sense that the theme of this season’s success has been cohesion and mutual support.

“The biggest thing for us has been energy,” Pasareanu said. “The support of our teammates is really good; that’s what helped a lot. Whether it’s on the outside of the courts or on the courts, just hearing each other saying that we got a break point or a break or a set, overall positive energy helps throughout. I think that’s what the team struggled with a bit last year and we all made that change and it’s helped tremendously.”

Seeded sixth, NU will face the No. 11 seed Penn State in the first round on Thursday. The team beat the Nittany Lions 5-2 earlier this season. The Cats took the doubles point on the road 2-1, with Graves and Wolf securing the third match with a tight 9-7 win, and proceeded to take the singles matches at all but the No. 2 and 3 positions.

A win would earn NU a rematch with cross-state rival Illinois on Friday. The Cats lost to the Fighting Illini 5-2 on March 9.

Swan said playing on their home courts should give the Cats the edge over the weekend, especially if a match gets tight.

“It’s excellent to be hosting,” Swan said. “Hopefully people will come out and support the team. Obviously these courts are the courts we know best. We have a really good group of people that support us, so hopefully we can use those factors to our advantage, especially if we’re in a close match.”

[email protected]