Men’s Tennis: Northwestern off to its best start since 2017


Gabe Bider/The Daily Northwestern

Natan Spear (left) embraces Trice Pickens. Spear and Pickens have only lost one doubles set in their last eight matches.

Nathan Ansell, Assistant Sports Editor

After losing three of last year’s top four singles players, some critics dismissed Northwestern’s chances as a Big Ten contender this season. In 2021, the Wildcats’ second-round postseason finish was already a slight overachievement for a squad with six conference losses and zero regular season wins against top 25-finishing teams.

Fast-forward to late February, and NU (10-2, 0-0 Big Ten) is flying higher than ever. Signature wins over Duke (5-3, 0-0 ACC) and Oregon (5-3, 0-0 Pac-12) in tow, the Cats are knocking on the door of the ITA team rankings.

No. 1 Ohio State (11-0, 0-0 Big Ten) remains the team to beat in the Big Ten. But with defending conference champion Illinois (3-6, 0-0 Big Ten) faltering and others far behind, NU is challenging No. 20 Michigan (4-2, 0-0 Big Ten) for second-best.

“The conference is when it starts to reset,” coach Arvid Swan said. “It’s almost like a new season.”

Doubles consistency is helping the Cats’ run. NU dropped the doubles point in four of its first five matches after the opening weekend but has since won four out of the last five.

The Cats currently boast two ranked singles players, No. 55 Trice Pickens and No. 79 Simen Bratholm. Along with Steven Forman, who has played atop the singles order for every match this season, the seniors are a combined 23-5 in duals.

One match recap on NU’s athletics website even likened Forman, Bratholm and Pickens to the 2017 trio of Strong Kirchheimer, Konrad Zieba and Sam Shropshire, a group that also led NU to a 10-2 start.

“It’s a great compliment to our current players,” Swan said. “(I’m) really pleased with how much they’ve improved over the course of their careers at Northwestern. I felt the same way about those guys in ’16 and ’17.”

NU will need their top singles players to contribute. The Cats’ next opponent, No. 10 Kentucky (9-3, 0-0 SEC) has the No. 5 singles player in the nation, Gabriel Diallo, among its ranks. Not only that, Kentucky also has the 2020-21 ITA Player of the Year Liam Draxl, No. 1 in last year’s college singles rankings.

The schedule doesn’t let up after that. After Kentucky, NU will take on No. 16 Harvard (7-2, 0-0 Ivy League), an efficient team with four nationally ranked singles players. Swan’s squad will be tested against more ranked foes throughout the schedule, such as Michigan and No. 22 NC State (7-2, 0-0 ACC), but a road match against Ohio State remains the most brutally difficult task of all.

“I expect all of those teams to be in the NCAA tournament,” Swan said. “That’s why players come to Northwestern, they want to play the best teams possible.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nathanjansell

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