In their last weekend slate of games before Big Ten play truly arrives, the ‘Cats (10-9, 1-2 B1G) fell to #15 Illinois (6-5, 1-0 B1G), before an up-and-down Sunday double header saw them lose a tough contest to #32 Texas Tech (10-5)  before trouncing UIC (1-10).

#15 Illinois continued their dominance in the intrastate rivalry with #45 Northwestern, beating the ‘Cats for the third straight year. The Illini entered the match after having dropped two top-ten matches, but easily overpowered Northwestern in singles.

Alex Brown and Caleb Chakravarthi opened up the match with a 6-4 win over Nick Brookes and Simen Bratholm, but it appeared as if the ‘Cats would take the doubles point after Chris Ephron and Dominik Stary jumped out to a 5-3 lead while Trice Pickens and Antonioni Fasano went up 5-2. Unfortunately, both pairs faded down the stretch as Illinois sent each match into a tiebreak, where Pickens and Fasano fell 1-7 to give the Illini the doubles point.

Singles play didn’t improve Northwestern’s fortunes either; Illinois won five of six first sets. The lone exception, Bratholm, took a 7-6 tiebreak victory over Siphosothando Montsi, but his match ended unfinished as Brookes, Ephron and Pickens all fell in straight sets.

Texas Tech posed a similarly formidable opponent on Saturday. The ‘Cats had the chance to take the doubles point after the Brookes/Bratholm and Stary/Ephron pairs both went into tiebreaks, but Brookes double faulted on his first service, portending an eventual 4-7 loss. Pickens and Fasano previously dropped their match 4-6 to mark Northwestern’s third consecutive doubles loss.

The Red Raiders cruised through most of their first sets, winning five of six. Brookes and Stary were the first to fall on Courts #1 and #2, respectively.  Brookes took on Tommy Mylnikov, and after dropping his first set 4-6 Brookes sent the second to a tiebreak. Mylnikov was too much, however, and prevailed 7-6 (7-5). Stary got off to a poor start, dropping his first four games in his set against Parker Wynn en route to a 3-6 loss. He rebounded with a 5-2 start in the second, but Wynn sent the match to a tiebreak where he took the win 7-3.

With no margin for error, the ‘Cats stormed back, led by Bratholm and Chris Ephron. Bratholm won his first set 7-6 (7-4) despite an early 1-4 deficit against Artem Kapshuk, and cruised for a 6-2 second set triumph. Ephron dropped his first against Bjorn Thomson, but won his next two sets for a  3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory to cut the Red Raiders’ lead to 1.

Fasano responded to a tough tiebreak loss in his first set by winning his second 6-3 over Ilgiz Valiev on Court #3. On Court #6, Trice Pickens lost two key break points at 3-4 and 5-6 against Franco Ribero in his second set, but sent the match to a tiebreak. Before Fasano could complete his comeback, Ribero held on for a tiebreak victory to give Texas Tech the 4-2 result.

Similarly to their last meeting, Northwestern dominated UIC with ease. Michael Lorenzini took the court for his first match all season, partnering with Jason Seidman in doubles in a 25 minute, 6-1 victory on Court #3. Brookes and Bratholm won their match 6-2 to seal the doubles point for the Wildcats. In singles, straight set victories by Fasano, Ephron and Bratholm clinched the tenth win of the year for the ‘Cats.

In all, the up-and-down performance has been indicative of the ‘Cats non-conference performance this season, in which they’ve alternated between excellent wins (see: Harvard, Duke) and substandard displays (see: opening four matches). Northwestern has a two week break before resuming Big Ten play against Iowa in Evanston on March 30; hopefully, the squad can use their break to even out their form beforehand. While the ‘Cats have steadily improved over the course of the season, we still have yet to see the consistency that proves Northwestern can win against the best of the conference.