Women’s Tennis: Wildcats enter Big Ten play after a Winter of tough opponents

Northwestern has had an up-and-down season, knocking off four top-20 teams but dropping four matches as well.

Daily file photo by Meghan White

Northwestern has had an up-and-down season, knocking off four top-20 teams but dropping four matches as well.

Alex Putterman, Reporter

Life can be tough for a powerhouse with a schedule to match its reputation.

The No. 9 Wildcats have finished the bulk of non-conference play, in which they have gone 6-4 with several big wins and a few disappointing losses. Northwestern has defeated two teams in the nation’s top 10 and four in the top 20 but lost twice to then-No. 3 Duke and once apiece to No. 21 Vanderbilt and No. 14 Texas.

Although coach Claire Pollard said the Cats have “missed some opportunities to convert,” she praised the team’s balance as a key component to its success.

“I like that we don’t have any hole in our lineup,” Pollard said. “We’re solid at every position now, and I really like that.”

Perhaps most impressive for the Cats has been No. 83 Belinda Niu. At the Indoor Team Championships from Feb. 8 to 10, the then-unranked junior won all three of her matches, including two victories over ranked opponents and NU’s only point against the Blue Devils.

“Something I’ve always struggled with is staying mentally composed and not getting too frantic when I play,” Niu said. “At indoors, in all three matches, I was able to stay calm and keep fighting, even under whatever circumstances. I think that’s always really important for me.”

The start of Big Ten play, March 2 against Illinois, provides a set of pressures for the Cats. NU has finished first in the conference 12 times in Pollard’s 14 seasons at the helm, including in 2012, when the Cats went 10-1 in the conference. Despite the regular-season title, the Cats failed to win the conference tournament last year for the first time under Pollard.

As the current highest-ranked Big Ten team, NU has an opportunity to return to championship glory.

“We’re definitely excited for Big Ten play,” Niu said. “It’s particularly meaningful for us because we’ve had an incredible history in the Big Ten, and part of our program legacy is taking the season title and the tournament title every year, so we always want to work very hard to defend that.”

Though the conference schedule is no cakewalk for the Cats, the worst might be behind them. NU hasn’t faced an opponent ranked outside the top 40, but the Big Ten includes unranked teams like Iowa and Wisconsin amidst titans like No. 12 Michigan and No. 15 Nebraska. The players will likely appreciate the occasional respite.

“It’s tough to have that tough of a schedule,” No. 67 Kate Turvy said. “Just back-to-back-to-back tough teams, but it’s what we like and what we came here to do, so it’s good, but at the same time it’s exhausting too.”

Turvy, the Cats’ top player, epitomizes the uncertainty of college tennis at this level. Like the team as a whole, the senior has won and lost against the country’s best, going 3-4 so far in the dual-meet season. Turvy has dropped three consecutive matches since leading NU’s victory over No. 11 Miami.

The ups and down don’t trouble the Cats, who consistently emphasize process over results. Pollard called the loss to Texas a better performance than the team’s win over Notre Dame the weekend before, and Turvy said she doesn’t know the Cats’ record or judge success based on it.

“I can’t think of a match I’ve been disappointed in the team with,” she said. “If you would tell me where we’re at now and how hard we’ve fought to get here, I wouldn’t be disappointed at all.”

So, with process as her criteria, is Pollard satisfied with her team’s performance to this point?

“Jury’s still out.”