Men’s Tennis: Quick starts key for Northwestern against three regional foes

Kevin Casey, Reporter

This weekend marks the Wildcats’ final action before spring break, and don’t underestimate how much will be determined in these three days for the young squad.

Northwestern is fresh off frustrating losses to then-No. 38 Louisville and then-No. 7 Illinois, a pair of performances coach Arvid Swan admitted were not up to snuff. But NU has a chance to make amends.

The No. 24 Cats will face off with No. 54 Purdue in their conference road opener Friday night and will add a match against No. 57 Indiana to the fray at home on Sunday afternoon. A contest later that evening against Illinois-Chicago will offer NU a brief reprieve from Big Ten play.

At 10-6 and equipped with a top-25 ranking, the Cats have done well so far this season. But in order to keep up the good vibes, the team’s play must change drastically from last weekend’s effort.

“We have to start off better in sets,” Swan said. “Against Illinois we got down a break in doubles and lost a lot of first sets in singles. We have to be more alert, playing more aggressive in the beginning and just trying to gain momentum, which we did pretty well earlier in the year but we didn’t do well in these past couple of matches.”

At the very least, Swan’s players are not taking the high ranking for granted. The Boilermakers and Hoosiers may lack in ranked singles players — Purdue has zero and Indiana one — but Swan believes that both squads are still stacked at the top. 

In addition, the top part of the singles lineup, No. 44 Raleigh Smith and No. 85 Sam Shropshire, was not the big issue for the Cats this past weekend. It was the Nos. 3-6 section of singles that could not muster a single point against the Cardinals, and NU’s No. 1 and No. 2 spots were no more responsible for the Fighting Illini defeat than any other part of the lineup. 

Whatever the case, the Cats, especially a senior who’s seen his share of fights with both battalions, refuse to dismiss a pair of Big Ten squads ranked outside the top 50.

“Both teams are tough every year,” Smith said. “We lost to Purdue my freshman year, we won sophomore year and we beat Indiana last year, but my first two years we got killed. We know their coaches train them very hard, so we know they’re going to be ready to play.”

Singles is not the main point of concern, though. Consistency in doubles has persistently been elusive for NU, with the squad sporting an 8-8 showing in that department despite two separate three-match winning streaks in the opening point. 

The freshman duo of Alp Horoz and Shropshire have especially struggled, losing six of their last seven doubles contests. Horoz suggested the pair might switch sides to change up the mojo but insists they are not far off from getting on a winning track.

“We have to start off our matches better with holds instead of getting broken in the first game,” the freshman said. “But we’re doing the right things, just a couple of points here and there.”

In the Big Ten, where so many matches are tight, a doubles team that can compliment the steady No. 21 team of Smith and Mihir Kumar could be crucial.

Swan feels his team is progressing but a long way off from its true potential. A date with No. 1 Ohio State looms after spring break, but Smith is staying focused on this weekend.

“The Ohio State thing isn’t a factor. We’re not worried about that right now,” Smith said. “We’re just trying to get wins this weekend. We laid an egg against Illinois, me personally and the team as a whole. But it’s in the past, we’re just trying to get two conference wins this weekend.”

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