Northwestern clearly has a habit for nail-biting finishes.
The ‘Cats took on rivals Illinois, Notre Dame, and UIC in a weekend tripleheader and were one set away from three wins. Illinois (4-6) took a 4-3 win back to Urbana in front of a full house in Combe, while the ‘Cats prevented a Notre Dame (6-7) comeback in a 4-2 win outdoors at Vandy Christie Tennis Center in a match that came down to the wire. The ‘Cats finished up with a routine performance against UIC (1-9).
Illinois’ #25 doubles team of Aleks Kovacevic and Alex Brown took down Nick Brookes and Simen Bratholm by a 6-3 scoreline on court #1 after racing out to a 1-4 advantage. Gui Gomes/Siphosothando Montsi took a break at 3-2 against Dominik Stary and Chris Ephron on court #2 to seal the doubles point for the Illini.
With cheers of “I-L-L”! “I-N-I!” echoing through Combe Tennis Center, this match almost had the feel of an Illinois home game. The ‘Cats managed to turn around Illinois’ momentum, but at first the Wildcats struggled to separate from their counterparts from Urbana. Stary, Ephron, Bratholm, and Trice Pickens all dropped early breaks, while Steven Forman and Brookes held serve. #70 Stary, up against #15 Alex Brown on court #1, went down 3-0 to the accomplished sophomore and could not complete the rally in a 3-6 first-set loss. Elsewhere, Pickens and Bratholm dropped their first sets by identical 2-6 scores.
Three Wildcats played their way to first set tiebreaks, with Brookes and Forman getting the better of #64 Montsi and #41 Kovacevic, respectively. Ephron faced off against Zeke Clark in a drawn-out battle on court #5, and rebounded from a 1-4 deficit to send the match into a tiebreak, which he dropped 4-7.
Fletcher Scott finished off Pickens on court #5, but Bratholm picked up Northwestern’s first win of the match against Vuk Budic. Stary turned his match around with a second set win, but Brown was ultimately too much in the third as the senior lost a 3-6, 6-4, 4-6 decision. Brookes won another tiebreak in the second over Montsi, while Forman won this third set against Kovacevic to square the game at 3-3.
With all eyes on court #5, Ephron battled back once again from an early 1-4 whole by winning six of the next seven points. Clark appeared to be dealing with some shoulder discomfort, but returned to the match all knotted up at 1-1 in the third. The Illini senior won a break at 4-2, and took the set 6-3 and the win for the Illini.
The Fighting Irish were facing issues of their own against top competition, but Northwestern eventually gutted out the victory in the sun. The Ephron/Stary and Forman/Spear pairings pulledd out the doubles point, but the Irish responded in singles. #8 Richard Ciamarra took down Stary 6-2, 6-4, and Matthew Che beat Bratholm 6-2, 6-4. Wins by Brookes against #106 Tristan McCormick and Ephron against Connor Fu gave the ‘Cats a 3-2 advantage and needing a win out of either Forman or Pickens. The former dragged his set against Axel Nefve into a tiebreak after going up a break. Forman had multiple chances to win but could not get a finisher as Nefve took the point 9-7. Pickens and Guillermo Cabrera went the distance, and in the third set Pickens went up a break but lost it at 4-3. Pickens pulled out three consecutive games in a row to seal the win for Northwestern.
The ‘Cats finished their weekend games with a home win against UIC. The Ephron/Stary pair as well as the Forman/Spear pairs won their doubles sets, while Forman, Ephron, and Pickens all recorded singles wins in straight sets. The only ‘Cat to drop their first set was Antonioni Fasano, who fought back from a 0-3 hole but could not prevent a 5-7 loss.
The ‘Cats continue their conference season against Indiana at Combe Tennis Center on Saturday, March 14 at 10 a.m.