It’s been a while since Northwestern defeated Illinois in Champaign. The last time it happened was 1997 – The Notorious BIG’s “Hypnotize” was on top of the charts, and none of the Wildcats involved in last weekend’s rivalry match were born yet.
The Fighting Illini (10-13, 3-4 Big Ten) extended the streak Saturday, claiming a 4-1 victory against NU (16-8, 4-3 Big Ten). The Cats have now lost 30 of their last 31 matches against Illinois.
Weather conditions varied throughout the weekend, and NU wasn’t sure the match would be played outside until shortly before it started. Before the match, coach Arvid Swan held a morning practice session on the indoor and outdoor courts to prepare for both possibilities.
“Recently, we haven’t played much outdoors,” senior Simen Bratholm said. “It was kind of windy today, so we just had to adapt to the difficult situation.”
The Cats’ woes started in doubles. NU conceded set points on the top two courts almost simultaneously, a frustrating result given by the Cats had won both doubles points in last year’s matches against the Fighting Illini.
Singles, on the other hand, got off to a promising start. The Cats took three quick first sets and saw two more go to a tiebreak, but Illinois defeated NU on both of the top two singles courts, the first team to do so in over a year. Sophomore Presley Thieneman recorded the first individual victory of the day, defeating Alex Brown 6-1, 7-5.
“He won 75%, 80% of the ground stroke rallies in the match today,” Swan said. “Off the baseline, Presley was winning the vast majority of the points.”
However, after Thieneman tied the match, Illinois started to gain momentum. No. 30 Steven Forman, a senior, saved four set points in the first set, but both Forman and Bratholm lost their tiebreaks.
Bratholm, who had defeated the same individual opponent in an indoor match in November, struggled with returns.
“He just put more balls into play,” Bratholm said. “I missed a little too much, and he was a better player on the court.”
Forman was broken late in his showdown, resulting in his second straight-sets loss of the season. Graduate student Brian Berdusco found breaks, but conceded even more as Illinois took a 3-1 lead.
Senior Trice Pickens had a strong opening, winning five straight games. Pickens had a chance to close the match in the second set, but he too lost a tiebreak.
“I probably didn’t play aggressive enough, in hindsight,” Pickens said. “Sometimes, you lose the breaker, and so it goes.”
Eventually, Bratholm faltered on his own serve, giving the clinching overall point to the Fighting Illini. Pickens and freshman Felix Nordby were both in the middle of third sets when the match was abandoned.
Despite the loss, Swan said the team remains motivated for the upcoming weeks.
“It’s a point here or there,” Swan said. “Illinois did a nice job of getting up in the breakers, which obviously put some pressure on us to stay in it.”
NU’s next match, a midweek faceoff against No. 13 Harvard (15-4, 5-0 Ivy League), comes at a crucial time. With the regular season winding down, the Cats could use a season-defining win for their postseason resume.
The match, originally intended to be played in February, will now interrupt NU’s season in the heart of the Big Ten schedule.
“We just got to take a look in the mirror and say we didn’t do our best today,” Pickens said. “Make sure we have a really productive next few days to get ready for Harvard, and then get ready for these last three regular season matches.”
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