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Men’s Tennis: Wildcats have strong showing at Big Ten Indoor Championships

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

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Northwestern asserted itself as a team to watch this spring with an impressive showing at the Big Ten Indoor Championships this weekend.

The four-day tournament in Madison, Wis., was the final event of the fall season for the Wildcats, and they made it count. Junior Raleigh Smith and senior Sidarth Balaji teamed up to win the doubles competition, and Smith took home the singles title as an individual.

“It should give our guys some confidence heading into the team season,” coach Arvid Swan said. “Our thing throughout the fall is we need to continue to improve as a team and individually. We have a very challenging schedule this year, and these fall tournaments help us as coaches see where we need to improve.”

The doubles pair had a bye in the first round before easily sliding by a duo from Michigan State 8-1. Balaji and Smith then took down the four-seed Jakhongir Jalalov and Oskar Wikberg from Wisconsin in the quarterfinals. They then took out another team of Badgers before reaching the final against Barrett Franks and Michael Zhu of Michigan.

In the final, the Cats’ pairing dropped the first game, but they cruised through the next seven to take a 7-1 lead in the first to eight format. The Michigan duo responded with three games of its own, but Smith and Balaji closed out the match to win 8-4. The win was especially impressive considering Balaji was up all night due to an illness, which forced him to retire from his singles match later Sunday morning against his doubles partner. Smith said he had no idea Balaji was sick until after the title match when Swan told him Balaji was going to pull out of the match.

“I was kind of surprised,” Smith said. “I wasn’t looking forward to the idea for playing my teammate. If he was hurting though, he did a good job of hiding it during doubles.”

In the singles draw, Smith was seeded fourth and won all three of his matches in straight sets with relative ease. He dispatched of three other seeded players along the way including a walkover win against Balaji, who wasn’t feeling well after the doubles final. His opponent in the final was Wikberg, who was seeded fifth.

Smith dominated the play from the start and easily took home the title with a 6-0, 6-2 victory. He said his strategy was to limit his unforced errors, and he did that by jumping all over Wikberg early on. By the time the nerves settled in, Smith already had the lead and he used the confidence to close out the match in straight sets. The junior from Miami said to be able to win both titles was a nice confidence booster, but with the dual season so far away, he said he doesn’t believe any momentum will come of it.

“I’ll celebrate this one today, but the season doesn’t start for two months so I don’t think this will carry over,” Smith said.

NU had three other players reach the round of 16 in the singles competition, but none of them could advance to the quarterfinals. Senior Chris Jackman and freshman Fedor Baev both lost in three sets, while sophomore Alex Pasareanu lost in straight sets to Wikberg. The Cats also had freshman Mihir Kumar advance to the finals of the back draw before losing to Jonas Dierckx of Iowa in a three-set thriller.

The weekend produced a lot of confidence builders for the Cats as they head into the team duals at the end of January. With a challenging schedule ahead of them, including the Big Ten dual season, Swan said this weekend helped to solidify some things about the starting lineup.

“We’re continuing to evaluate what we need to work on heading into the team season,” Swan said. “This weekend was a really good opportunity to evaluate doubles combinations, see what we need to work on and also start to evaluate our singles lineup.”