Men’s Tennis: Friendship, leadership hallmarks of Northwestern senior class

From left, seniors Spencer Wolf, Sidarth Balaji  and Chris Jackman square off against Illinois at the Big Ten Tournament on Friday in one of the final matches of their careers.

Abbey Chase/The Daily Northwestern

From left, seniors Spencer Wolf, Sidarth Balaji and Chris Jackman square off against Illinois at the Big Ten Tournament on Friday in one of the final matches of their careers. "We're pretty much each other's closest group of friends," Wolf said. "That's probably the biggest thing that we're losing after this year."

Abbey Chase, Reporter

The world of elite junior tennis is a small one, so seniors Sidarth Balaji, Chris Jackman and Spencer Wolf were hardly strangers when they arrived at Northwestern as freshmen in 2009.

“It was nice because in Bobb, Wolf and I lived with each other, and Sid was literally right next door,” Jackman said. “We practiced every day together, and we’d go to the dorms and then in the cafeteria, parties, everything. We’re always together and obviously from there, we started developing a close relationship.”

Before coming to college, Balaji and Jackman had played once before in 2007 at the Junior National Tennis Championship in Kalamazoo, Mich., — Balaji won 6-4, 6-4. Jackman and Wolf, who both trained in Florida, have known each other since they were 14 but Wolf’s introduction to Balaji came a few years later. After both committed to NU, Wolf passed Balaji at Spring Super Nationals, and Balaji turned to him and asked whether he was going to ignore his future teammate.

Four years later, the seniors have led the team to a 21-8 record in their final season and are now into the postseason, with a dwindling number of matches left.

“We’re losing three outstanding players and three outstanding leaders,” coach Arvid Swan said. “It’s not going to be easy to fill those players’ roles. It’s just a very special group of seniors that we’re losing that I care a lot about.”

The three seniors each had distinct career trajectories, with Balaji and Wolf establishing themselves in the lineup early during their freshman year, playing at the No. 2, 3 and 4 spots, while Jackman made the adjustment to NCAA competition more slowly.

“Even though I watched a lot of the matches early on, it was still fun seeing these guys win,” said Jackman, who posted a 2-2 record his freshman year. “When we beat Alabama, even though I didn’t see the court, I still felt like I won. … It definitely motivated me. Seeing my fellow freshmen playing made me want to get on the court.”

After his freshman year, Balaji’s collegiate career took a turn when he suffered an injury in his arm that put him out of competition for the better part of a year. Wolf recalled Balaji continually running sprints during practice while everyone else hit. Despite being in top physical condition when he returned, Balaji needed more time to regain his skills on court, specifically the timing and ball-striking abilities needed over the course of a three-hour match.

Alex Sanborn was the only senior when the trio were freshmen, and his leadership style was very influential for this year’s class.

“Sanborn did a great job of being our team captain and leader,” Wolf said. “He would never, ever take a day off from lifting or from trying his hardest in practice. He wasn’t the best tennis player, but he competed really hard, and he really tried to get better and that was always really motivating for me.”

While each senior had his own favorite match and personal accomplishment, they took the most pride in the achievements of the entire team.

“We’re trying to leave Northwestern tennis better than it was when we got here,” Balaji said. “That was one of the main things we were aiming to do and I think we’ve done that.”

Tennis creates an odd dynamic between the individual and the team. Players have to fight on their own on the court, but their individual match is only one part of the equation. Part of being a senior is helping the younger players adjust to that unique environment.

Jackman said the personal relationships the team has formed away from tennis have been an important part of what has made them a successful squad on court.

“The combination of those three, I couldn’t imagine having better seniors,” freshman Mihir Kumar said. “They’ve been so helpful and such great leaders on and off the court. I feel really lucky to have this year with them, and I think we’re all really glad that we’ve gotten to know them.”

NU continues its postseason Friday in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten Tournament after its 4-1 win over Iowa. With only a handful of matches left in their college careers, the seniors will be leaving behind more than just the competition.

“We’re pretty much each other’s closest group of friends,” Wolf said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that we’re losing after this year.”