Men’s Tennis Roundtable: Writers discuss Northwestern’s historic season


Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

Konrad Zieba (right) catches his breath. The junior has vastly improved over last season, locking down the No. 1 singles spot.

Men’s Tennis

The 2016 season brought huge milestones for Northwestern, namely a program-record 24 regular season wins. Now, with the Wildcats having earned themselves home-court advantage for the NCAA Regionals, NU has a chance to further cement itself as one of the best teams in school history. Our writers discuss the Cats’ chances heading into their matchup with Valparaiso on Friday.

1. What does Northwestern need to do to win their home playoff matches and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament?

Benjy Apelbaum: Northwestern will be helped by playing the first two rounds at home where they haven’t lost yet this season. The draw appears favorable with first round matchup with a Valparaiso team that is ranked outside the top 75 but have had competitive matchups with quality teams such as Purdue, Louisville and Wisconsin, and also won the Horizon league.

Then the Cats will play the winner of Stanford and Notre Dame, who have rankings of No. 29 and No. 40, respectively. NU already beat Notre Dame 6-1 earlier this year and won four of those singles matches in straight sets.

In a potential matchup with Stanford, look for the Cats’ depth to pay off in the middle of the singles lineup. In order to make a deep run and get past a potential round-of-16 matchup with No. 3 seed UCLA, NU will probably have to win the doubles point to ease the burden in singles play against schools with a number of top-ranked players.

Garrett Jochnau: Because tennis isn’t a team sport, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific variable that warrants focus, but I’d argue that winning the doubles point will be a key to the Wildcats’ success in the tournament. Until the Illinois match in the Big Ten Tournament, the Cats hadn’t lost a match after winning the doubles point all year. By capturing that point, it gives the team great momentum and makes it that much more difficult for the opposing team, who now has to win four of the six singles matches. With junior Strong Kirchheimer a nearly guaranteed win at No. 3, that leaves very little wiggle room for opposing teams to catch up if they drop the opening point.

2. Which player has a chance to be a difference-maker in the playoffs?

Jochnau: Junior Konrad Zieba. Like I said, Kirchheimer is one of the best No. 3 players in the country and should be expected to win. Freshman Ben Vandixhorn has become a pretty consistent threat in the back half of the lineup too. Zieba has been the Cats’ nicest surprise this season. If he can continue to dominate against the top players on the country’s top teams, not only does it give the Cats a “W” on a decisive court but it also bodes well for his teammates’ collective ability to match up on lower courts.

Apelbaum: Kirchheimer and junior Sam Shropshire as well as Vandixhorn have all been hot coming into the playoffs. Shropshire and Kirchheimer have mostly played No. 2 and No. 3 singles and benefitted greatly from Zieba moving up to No. 1 spot because they do not have to take on opposing teams’ top players.

Outside of the three juniors, Vandixhorn has benefitted from playing at No. 6 and has earned favorable matchups due to the team’s depth. Wins at those three spots and at the doubles point could be enough for the Cats to upset a top team.   

3. How big of a set back was the loss to Illinois in the conference semifinals?

Apelbaum: Although it certainly would have been nice to record another win over a rival, the tight loss did not really affect how the Cats are perceived. The most recent match was their third meeting of the year against the Fighting Illini. The last regular-season match was a tight 4-3 victory for NU, but in the semifinals it was on the losing end of a 4-3 contest.

Even in the loss, the Cats still recorded wins in the doubles point and two singles matches against top competition. This time, they just weren’t able to come up with one more point.

Jochnau: Minimal. Had the loss pushed the Cats out of the top 16, it would be another story. But they retained their ranking and clinched hosting privileges for the NCAA Regionals. Seeding differences would likely be negligible, because NU would still be playing teams in the same tiers had they perhaps been ranked one or two slots higher. If anything, the loss will prove to the Cats that they’re not invincible even after winning the doubles point and should bring them back to earth after an incredible season.

4. Where does this team rank in program history?

Jochnau: No. 1. They notched the most wins in a season and best winning percentage in a season. The team has not one, not two, but three All-Big Ten first teamers, and may very well have three competitors in the NCAA Singles tournament. The bottom half of the lineup is strong too, but with unprecedented firepower at the top and the wins to prove it, it would be hard to argue against this team as the program’s best ever.

Apelbaum: Regardless of their postseason performance, this team will still be considered the best in modern program history. They do not have the star power the 1990 team had with All-Americans Todd Martin and Steve Herdoiza and did not win the Big Ten championship as that team did. However, the 1990 team did not have to face off against No. 5 Ohio State in conference. Most tellingly, this year’s Wildcats will finish with the best record in program history, with at least two more wins and at a minimum five fewer losses than the 1983 team, which previously held the record for most wins in a season. Led by their depth, the success of this year’s team will not be soon forgotten.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @GarrettJochnau

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BenjyApelbaum