Men’s Tennis: Northwestern survives first round tilt with Penn State

Abbey Chase

In their second meeting with the Wildcats this season, the Nittany Lions weren’t going to go down without a fight.

Northwestern successfully opened its Big Ten tournament bid on Thursday with a 4-2 win over No. 11 seed Penn State, its second victory over the Nittany Lions in as many weeks.

Doubles play didn’t get off to a quick start for the Cats, with all three matches staying even through the first five games. While junior Sidarth Balaji and senior Tobias Reitz broke away in the sixth game, gaining a 4-2 advantage, there was trouble on the No. 1 court for senior Josh Graves and junior Spencer Wolf, who fell behind 3-5 to the team of Jason Lee and Russell Bader, ranked No. 23 nationally.

With Balaji and Reitz taking out their opponents 8-3 and Graves and Wolf falling 8-6, the doubles point came down to freshman Alex Pasareanu and sophomore Raleigh Smith. At 2-5, it looked like NU might drop the doubles point for the second straight match, but the duo was able to rebound with a crucial break midway through the match.

“Obviously it was weird (windy) conditions, but we came out for whatever reason with not as much energy as we should have so we pumped it up and got an easy break,” Smith said. “I want to be the last guy on, I want everything to come down to me. To clinch a match is a really good feeling.”

Leading 1-0, NU quickly found themselves back even in the match following Pasareanu’s 6-4, 6-0 loss. A three-set win by junior Chris Jackman and a subsequent loss by Balaji evened the scored at 2-2, and then things got tight.

The Cats had won the first set in all of the remaining singles matches but were struggling in the second. Despite a 3-0 lead, Wolf could not hold on to the second set and Tomas Hanzlik went on to take the set 6-4.

On the No. 3 court, Smith fought through a tight first set 7-5 but quickly fell behind in the second and eventually dropped the set 6-3. In the deciding set, Smith secured an early break and didn’t look back, taking the final set 6-2.

Now just one point from victory, the Cats were relying on Graves and Wolf. Against Lee, whom Graves did not face in the team’s previous meeting this season with Penn State, Graves easily won the first, but Lee fought back to level the match, taking the second 6-4.

“I just told myself to keep playing each point and stay in the moment,” Graves said. “I made a couple of adjustments, hitting the ball a little bit higher over the net, trying to deal with the windy conditions a little bit better, and I think that really helped me.”

The two stayed even in the deciding set until the 10th game, in which Lee was attempting to hold down 4-5 to keep the Nittany Lions in the match. Graves earned two match points at 15-40 and following an ace by Lee secured the match for the Cats on his second match point opportunity.

“It was great to see,” coach Arvid Swan said. “That was a critical point in the match. Josh is a senior playing at No. 1, so it was really good to see him step up in a big way and clinch the match for us. I’m happy for him.”

Tomorrow NU will face state rival and No. 3 seed Illinois.

“It’s going to be a war,” Swan said. “Our guys have got to come out and fight throughout the match and then see where we are. I know we’re going to have to step up in certain positions, and hopefully our guys will do that, but Illinois is a very good team.”

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