By Neel Madhavan
With Big Ten Conference play officially underway, Northwestern University women’s tennis keeps the focus on the same goal this season that they do every year: to win the conference championship.
“That’s a big goal for us, but we can’t really think about that every match,” said junior Julie Byrne. “We just have to compete hard and the result will take care of itself. It’s going to be like that for the next two months, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves because the Big Ten is very strong this year.”
Based on past successes, Northwestern is widely viewed as the preeminent program in the Big Ten. The Wildcats have won 15 Big Ten regular season championships, including 11 straight from 1999-2009, and have made 29 NCAA tournament appearances, both are tops in the conference.
The 13th-ranked Wildcats dispatched No. 26 Illinois 5-2 on March 1 to open Big Ten play.
As defending regular season champions, the Wildcats know to expect the best from every team they face this season.
“As far as being the defending champs, every team is gunning for us,” Byrne said. “We have to play to win, we can’t play to defend.”
Currently, Northwestern has two players in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Singles Rankings – freshman Clarissa Hand at No. 30 and Byrne at No. 109. Also, the Wildcats boast two duos in the ITA National Doubles Rankings with the pairing of Hand and senior Lee Or at No. 20 and the pairing of Byrne and freshman Hannah McColgan at No. 27.
The top of Northwestern’s lineup seems set, but head coach Claire Pollard said she wants to see some improvement and more consistency at the bottom of the lineup as the Wildcats navigate Big Ten play.
“We’ve got a tough order,” Pollard said. “We’re defending champs, and we’d like to do it again. We’re just looking to try to be the best version of ourselves. Where that leads to, we’ll find out.”
Based on the results of non-conference play, three teams look primed to attempt to dethrone the Wildcats from their perch atop the Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois.
“Look, I think we have four legitimate, elite teams this year,” Pollard said. “When you look at the SEC, the Pac-12, the ACC and the Big 12, I think we’re right up there with everyone this year. Depth is better. It’s going to be a long year, and we just need to take it one match at a time.”
From top-to-bottom, Michigan might have the best lineup in the Big Ten, based on player rankings. Pollard certainly thinks so.
“I think Michigan’s the best team in the conference, I do,” she said. “We look forward to playing them. They have four players that are pretty dang good. We enjoy playing Michigan.”
The Wolverines upset top-seeded Northwestern 4-3 in the final of last year’s Big Ten tournament, preventing the Wildcats from sweeping both the regular season and tournament championships.
Senior Kate Fahey leads the 21st-ranked Wolverines at the top of their lineup as the 8th-ranked player in Division I. She’s followed by three other nationally ranked players in junior Chiara Lommer at No. 21, senior Brienne Minor at No. 31 and junior Giulia Pairone at No. 85.
Minor won the national championship in singles in 2017 as a sophomore.
The Wolverines are currently 5-2 on the year, with a pair of victories over currently ranked opponents, including No. 9 Texas and No. 17 Pepperdine, and two losses to ranked opponents, including No. 1 North Carolina and No. 27 Syracuse.
Ohio State has one of the youngest rosters in the Big Ten this season with three freshmen, four sophomores and just one junior and one senior.
Two of the freshmen are two of Ohio State’s best players. Kolie Allen is the highest-ranked Buckeye at No. 48, while Isabelle Boulais is the other at No. 64. Sophomore Shiori Fukuda is also ranked at No. 72.
The 10-2 Buckeyes have an impressive resume so far, having beaten four currently ranked teams, including No. 27 Syracuse, No. 44 Notre Dame, No. 25 Kentucky and No. 35 Georgia Tech.
According to Pollard, Illinois returns almost everyone from a squad that went 22-6 overall and 9-3 in the Big Ten in 2018.
The Illini’s 22-win campaign in 2018 is tied for the most in program history.
While Illinois doesn’t have anyone in the ITA rankings, save for the doubles partnership of Daniella Pedraza Novak and Alexandra Belaya at No. 60, it does have a very experienced squad, with three seniors, one junior and four sophomores.
The 26th-ranked Illini are 5-6 and have beaten three currently ranked teams in No. 24 Texas A&M, No. 44 Notre Dame and No. 46 Baylor.