Men’s Tennis: Northwestern toppled by Illinois in road test

Senior Chris Jackman reaches to return a low shot near the line. During Northwestern’s weekend loss, Jackman won his singles match in a third-set tiebreaker against Illinois, but said losing the doubles point was a blow to Northwestern’s momentum.

Daily file photo by Melody Song

Senior Chris Jackman reaches to return a low shot near the line. During Northwestern’s weekend loss, Jackman won his singles match in a third-set tiebreaker against Illinois, but said losing the doubles point was a blow to Northwestern’s momentum.

Abbey Chase, Reporter

Northwestern has a history of struggling against in-state rival Illinois, but with a No. 20 ranking, the highest the Wildcats have been ranked in over 15 years, NU was as closely matched on paper with the Fighting Illini as it has been since its last win over Illinois in 1997.

“I think we’ve continued to improve through the year,” coach Arvid Swan said. “We’re just trying to focus on the team. We try to play a competitive schedule and get as many ranked wins as we can and then see where we are at the end of the year because that’s where the ranking matters.

Taking on the Fighting Illini on the road, the Cats made their opponents work for it before falling 5-2, the same score line by which they were defeated the previous year. But competing in front of a huge crowd in Champaign, Ill., NU had to contend with more than just its No. 17 opponent. 

“It was a crazy atmosphere,” senior Spencer Wolf said. “There were probably a couple hundred people there, all Illinois fans. It was a lot of fun to play in but they were definitely the hardest conditions we’ve had. When you miss a shot, everyone is yelling and talking trash at you sometimes during the point or if you mess up. It’s a lot of fun but it’s definitely a tough environment to play in.”

Early breaks in all three doubles matches helped the Cats stay on top of the Fighting Illini early. NU went on to take the first match of the day at the No. 3 position but was defeated at the No. 1 spot.

In the deciding doubles match, the No. 2 team of sophomore Alex Pasareanu and freshman Mihir Kumar took their opponents to a tiebreak before surrendering the match 9-8(3), putting the Cats in a 0-1 hole heading into singles.

“Overall as a team, we did some good things but we had things that weren’t so good,” senior Chris Jackman said. “We played well in doubles in some spots but had opportunities that we didn’t convert across the board. Losing that doubles point definitely took a lot of wind out of our sails going into singles.”

Once singles got underway, Pasareanu was the first to fall, dropping the match to Farris Gosea, who was half of the doubles team that thwarted Pasareanu and Kumar, 6-2, 6-1. At the No. 1 spot, Wolf faced off against the No. 1 recruit in the country from last year’s graduating class and current No. 38 Jared Hiltzik, falling in straight sets to the freshman to put Illinois within a point of the victory.

In tandem with tough singles matches, the defeat in doubles proved to be too much for the Cats to overcome and, combined with the harsh environment on the road, NU fell just short.

“I think if we played them right now at SPAC, we could beat them,” Wolf said. “When you’re on the road in those kind of conditions, winning the doubles point is so big for momentum reasons and it really hurt us not getting the doubles point against them.”

The Fighting Illini sealed the match with a victory over senior Sidarth Balaji in the No. 3 singles match but the Cats continued to fight.

Junior Raleigh Smith took out Stephen Hoh at the No. 2 spot 6-2, 6-4, improving his season singles record to 12-3.

In the final match of the day, Jackman fought back from a 6-4 first set loss to force a deciding 10-point tiebreaker, taking the match 4-6, 6-3, 10-4 to end the day. The win marked Jackman’s sixth 3-set victory of the year and his third comeback win after dropping the first set. 

“Ideally I’d want to win in straight sets but it’s just about telling myself that I am the must-win match,” Jackman said. “My (No. 6) position is really important because that’s a point we should always be able to get. I need to come out better but I have that confidence that even if I lose the first set, I’m still going to be able to win the match.”

Even though it did not come away with the win, NU began its conference season strong with a competitive match against one of the Big Ten’s best teams.

“We put ourselves in a position to win the match and that’s what we wanted to do going in,” Swan said. “We didn’t put ourselves in a hole in any of the doubles matches which was good so I thought we gave ourselves a decent chance to win each of those matches. Obviously, it didn’t go our way but we did put ourselves in a position to win.”