Men’s Tennis: Wildcats fight to victory in tight matchup against rival Illinois


Ziye Wang/The Daily Northwestern

Graduate student Ivan Yatsuk swings for the ball. On Saturday, he took down Illinois’ Karlis Ozolins in singles to tie the match.

Alyce Brown, Audience Engagement Editor

On Saturday, Northwestern faced down a match important in all aspects – a closely ranked opponent, conference matchup and in-state rival all during the first outdoor match of the season – and came out on top. 

Then-No. 27 Wildcats (15-7, 4-1 Big 10) hosted instate rival — then-No. 23 — Illinois on April 8 after concluding a four match win streak. NU had yet to land a win against a highly ranked conference opponent, and those in the stands knew the match was bound to be neck-and-neck.

The Cats started off strong. The first doubles win was picked by NU’s duo of graduate students Steven Forman and Simen Bratholm on the top court, whose underdog takedown of the Fighting Illinis’ then-No. 41 pair kick-started the Cats’ momentum in the match.

On the second court, junior Gleb Blekher and graduate student Ivan Yatsuk were handled by Illinois 6-2, making the doubles point anyone’s game. But that question didn’t linger for long, with NU soon clinching the doubles point on the third court to put the Cats up 1-0 heading into singles. 

From there, the six singles matches each became the entertaining, back-and-forth battle fans had expected from the tight rivalry matchup. 

The Fighting Illini began to cut a path for themselves from the jump, speeding to two decisive victories over the Cats’ junior Presley Thieneman and Forman, changing the tide and giving Illinois an early 2-1 lead. 

NU had to hit back to stay in the match, and a pair of wins helped them catch up to Illinois. Yatsuk took down the Fighting Illini’s then-No. 38 Karlis Ozolins on the top court, an impressive victory to tie the match at two apiece. Graduate student Trice Pickens quickly got on the board, downing his opponent to put the Cats back on top, 3-2, for the first time since the end of doubles. 

But the rivalry match refused to reach a peaceful end. Shortly after pulling ahead of Illinois, NU was once again staring down a tied score after Bratholm dropped his third set to hand the next point to the persistent Alex Petrov. 

At 3-3, the sixth court was the last left in play, manned by Blekher – a player who has proven himself to be a clincher under pressure. He had won his first set and lost his second, both by tiebreaker margins, and all eyes were on the match-deciding third set. 

Luckily for the Cats, Blekher pulled away from the close games that dictated the first and second sets and downed the last Illini standing 6-1. The victory sent the team storming his court, reveling in a 4-3 win in one of its hardest-fought matches this season. 

This victory over a ranked conference opponent — let alone a rival — was invaluable for the Cats, who improved to 4-1 in conference play. This weekend, the Cats will host a home swing against No. 45 Nebraska, No. 51 Wisconsin and Illinois State, where they’ll look to continue riding their ever-growing conference momentum. 

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Twitter: @alycebrownn

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