Men’s Tennis: Wildcats split matches at ITAs

Kevin Casey, Reporter

During Northwestern’s inaugural weekend road trip of the season, one higher-ranked foe bit the dust while the other proved too strong for the Wildcats to overcome.

The No. 31 Cats traveled to Norman, Okla., to take part in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Indoor Qualifying Rounds and put together a strong effort on Saturday, beating No. 24 Tulsa 4-2. That afforded NU a tantalizing opportunity the next afternoon: If the Cats could pull out a win over No. 9 University of Oklahoma, they would win their region and earn a berth to the prestigious ITA Division I National Men’s Team Championship in February.

The uplifting vision quickly evaporated, though. The Sooners pounced early, securing the doubles point and singles points with their nearly unstoppable top-two duo of Guillermo Alcorta and Axel Alvarez Llamas, respectively ranked fifth and sixth nationally in men’s singles. Up 3-0, Oklahoma closed out the match when Austin Siegel beat out Fedor Baev in the No. 5 singles spot.

Despite opening the weekend with a victory, coach Arvid Swan could’ve been upset at his team being handed a shellacking, albeit to an elite squad, on Sunday. But, as he reasoned, the final result didn’t really tell the whole story.

“We had a real chance to beat [Oklahoma],” Swan said. “The score may have finished 4-0, but  (when it was 3-0) there were four matches left on the court and we had chances in all four of those matches to win.”

Indeed, the remaining four singles contests all went to a third set. The Cats still needed to win all four of those deciding sets to triumph over the Sooners, but it wasn’t as impossible as it seemed.

Getting to a third set itself meant NU’s players were holding their own in the contests, and Oklahoma derives more of its power from its killer 1-2 punch anyway, although its depth is not lacking.

Though the match was not as lopsided as the score indicates, beating Oklahoma was still too tall a task. NU led in two contests when the Sooners captured the fourth, deciding point.

Swan found some positives to take away from the effort but lamented the slow start and said his team still needs significant grooming before it can reach the level of an elite squad like the Sooners.

“We didn’t win the doubles point, and they’re very good,” Swan said. “Oklahoma showed us what a top-10 team plays like in how they compete and also showed us what we need to do to get to that level.”

If there is a glimmer of hope for the Cats’ chances to play near a top-10 level, the Tulsa match could provide the blueprint.

After all, the Golden Hurricane outranked the Cats and had shown nothing early in the season that indicated they didn’t deserve their No. 24 mark. Yet NU came out on top, doing so 4-2.

Against Tulsa, NU took the first two doubles contests 6-1 and 6-4 to start out 1-0, and were tied 5-5 in the third doubles competition when it was left unfinished.

One of NU’s participants in that third doubles match was Mihir Kumar. The sophomore had previously stated that he wished to improve in doubles play. He said he felt he moved in the right direction with Saturday’s effort.

“I definitely played better in doubles,” Kumar said. “Sam (Shropshire) and I talked about what we wanted to do. I definitely needed to step up and we made strides.”

The second main factor was the bottom half of the lineup stepping up. Nos. 4, 5 and 6 singles all won their matches against Tulsa, with No. 3 embroiled in a nail-biter until it was declared unfinished.

More dependable doubles play could certainly bolster the Cats’ prospects. But without a player ranked in the top 100 nationally in singles, NU needs key contributions from its lower set to keep up with top squads.

That’s what Kumar saw against Tulsa and he believes NU can go far if that kind of play continues.

“The Tulsa match showed how deep of a team we have,” Kumar said. “You don’t have to have studs on your team. We have a really deep team and we can still compete with great teams. It just shows we can beat anyone in the country with who we have.”

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