Men’s Tennis: Wildcats trek to Georgia to begin NCAA Tournament

Northwestern tennis player Raleigh Smith has won 20 doubles matches this season. The doubles point will be crucial for the Wildcats to advance in the NCAA Tournament.

Daily file photo by Melody Song

Northwestern tennis player Raleigh Smith has won 20 doubles matches this season. The doubles point will be crucial for the Wildcats to advance in the NCAA Tournament.

Abbey Chase, Reporter

Northwestern has been working toward the NCAA Tournament all year, and on Friday, it will finally get the chance to make good on a season of high expectations and tenacious play.

NU set the stage for its conference schedule with wins over Louisville, Notre Dame and North Carolina State during the winter season, three teams against which the Wildcats had not won a match since they beat the Fighting Irish in 2003.

A six-match winning streak to begin 2013 and a five-match winning streak leading up to the start of Big Ten play earned NU its highest ranking of the season in March, coming in at No. 18.

“This is the highest we’ve been ranked since probably (former NU star) Todd Martin’s been here,” senior Spencer Wolf said in March after the team’s first Big Ten match. “But we’re just trying to stay focused. A lot of teams in the Big Ten are ranked pretty high, and we’re really hoping we get to play Illinois again in the Big Ten Tournament.”

Wolf got his wish, as NU’s conference season was bookended by matches against its in-state rival. A 5-2 loss in Champaign began the season, and a 4-2 loss in the quarterfinals to the Fighting Illini at the Big Ten Tournament ended it.

Although the end result was the same, the two matches told very different stories and were indicative of the progress the Cats made over the course of the season.

“Our team resembled more of our team in that match than it did in the match we played at Champaign,” junior Raleigh Smith said. “I think the match we played (at the Big Ten Tournament) resembled who we are. Nobody was surprised that we were right there to win the match. We fully expected to win that match.”

It is hard not to wonder how different the Cats’ season may have looked had doubles not thwarted them so often. NU suffered three 4-3 losses this season — to Vanderbilt, Harvard and Minnesota, losing the doubles point each time, despite capturing one of the three matches.

The toughest doubles loss for NU to swallow may have been in its most recent, the loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament. Had the Cats pocketed the doubles point, Smith’s loss at the No. 2 singles spot would have leveled the match score at 3-3. With freshman Mihir Kumar leading 3-2 in the third set of what would have been the last match on court, the outcome of that duel could have looked very different.

“Winning the doubles point, it just makes life a lot easier,” coach Arvid Swan said. “If we’d won the doubles point against Illinois, I think we might have had a different result. But we’ve shown that even if we haven’t won the doubles point, we’re still a pretty tough team. Obviously winning the doubles point helps, but I also think that our guys are confident.”

Despite their doubles setbacks, the Cats have turned out a season of which they can be proud. With a 21-9 record, NU held its own in a consistently strong conference, finishing tied for fifth in the Big Ten and earning its second straight NCAA bid.

NU will face off against No. 19 Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Athens, Ga. The Cats have not met the Demon Deacons in four years, but the two teams will be squaring off again in familiar territory. At the 2009 NCAA Tournament, Wake Forest took out NU 4-0 in the first round in Lexington, Ky.

But for the Cats, this has been a season of avenging past losses.

“I think we’re very confident,” Smith said. “One of our goals is to try to peak at the right time, so peaking at this time of the year is the most important thing because we want to be playing our best tennis when it comes to the postseason. And I think we’ve done that so far.”