Men’s Tennis: Northwestern closes season with trademark tenacity, falling to Georgia after rallying past Wake Forest

Abbey Chase, Reporter

From the first ball Friday until the final forehand Saturday, the Wildcats’ weekend at the NCAA Tournament was uncanny in its resemblance to the rest of their season. After posting a win over a top-20 team, Northwestern walked away from the tournament and its season having left it all on the court.

“I feel good about the progress that we made this year,” coach Arvid Swan said. “It starts with the three seniors who have been tremendous for us, and the rest of the team has done a lot of things and moved the program along as well.”

NU and Wake Forest went back and forth until the match was locked at 3-3, with the burden of keeping the Cats’ hopes alive falling on the shoulders of senior Chris Jackman.

“All I was thinking was, ‘This is going to be my last match ever. The rest of my life starts after this,’” Jackman said. “I was just having horrible thoughts. The thing that helped me overcome that the most was my team. After every single point, my teammates were yelling my name and cheering me on. I wasn’t just battling to win but doing it for them. We just wanted it so much more than they did.”

Comeback wins have become nearly synonymous with Jackman, who has won four matches after dropping the first set this season, and he proved to have one more comeback in him in Friday’s match. After fighting to get back on serve in the final set, Jackman broke his opponent again in the 12th game to take the match 3-6, 7-6, 7-5 and send NU to the next round to face No. 3 seed Georgia.

“That was brutal to watch,” freshman Mihir Kumar said. “Credit to Chris, he’s so mentally tough, and physically tough as well. It was incredible to see that. Our reaction after was just raw emotion.”

Fresh off their win in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the Bulldogs were formidable opponents for the Cats, who had not made it to the second round in the NCAA since 1998. Although Georgia took the match before NU could get on the board, the 4-0 score line did not tell the story of the match.

“It just comes down to a couple shots here and there,” Kumar said. “That’s the thing about tennis, you have to show up every day. Just because they’re ranked No. 3 and we’re No. 36, if they don’t show up and we do, then we are at the level of the No. 3 team in the country.”

With the Bulldogs winning at the Nos. 1 and 2 positions, the match began to slip away from the Cats, despite first-set victories from Jackman and Kumar. In what would be the decisive match, senior Sidarth Balaji staved off three match points before falling to Austin Smith 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 to end NU’s tournament run.

“Obviously we wanted to win that last match, but, despite losing that, I couldn’t be more proud of this season,” Jackman said. “Going forward, I’m confident they’re going to turn into a powerhouse and become the program we always wanted to be.”

It was the kind of ending this season deserved, one hard fought until the last point, and emblematic of the kind of dedication and resolve that has characterized the Cats over the past five months.

“My message to the team at the end of the season was that I’m so appreciative of their effort,” Swan said. “We’re an incredibly competitive team. I’m so appreciative of how the guys go about their business and how they’re a real team. All those things are great and great building blocks for going forward as well.”