By Jake Markowitz
The Iowa men’s tennis team will begin a lengthy five-game road trip in the Land of Lincoln this weekend.
The Hawkeyes will first play No. 27 Illinois at noon Saturday in Urbana-Champaign. An inconsistent team, the Illini sit at 10-9 overall, 3-2 in the conference, but their last match might spark a surge.
Following four-straight losses to start its road trip, Illinois composed itself and stole a win from Wisconsin in Madison, 4-2. The loss was the Badgers’ first against a Big Ten opponent this season.
“Spring break was tough on our squad,” Illinois head coach Brad Dancer said in a release. “We knew we were capable of performing better.”
Iowa (11-9, 1-4) will hope it can improve its play, too. Losers of five of the last six, the Hawkeyes have struggled dramatically since their 10-4 start to the season. Playing a ranked team isn’t a positive sign that they will be able to put an end to the slump anytime soon.
After defeating No. 42 Texas Tech on Jan. 28, the Hawkeyes have failed to convert a win against top-50 teams, going 0-6 along the way.
“We haven’t had the best success, but we always want to compete against good teams,” head coach Ross Wilson said. “Illinois is a good program, and we’re excited to play them this weekend.”
After Illinois, the Hawkeyes head north to face Northwestern, another nationally ranked team. Like Illinois, No. 21 Northwestern’s play has been wildly erratic.
After coming out hot with 10-straight wins, the Wildcats (15-7, 3-2) dropped five straight and six of their next seven. However, Northwestern should not be underestimated; four of those losses came against top-20 teams.
The Hawkeyes did not fare well last year to then-ranked No. 15 Northwestern. Falling 4-0, Iowa was unable to pull out a win in singles.
“The way we lost last year was tough,” junior Josh Silverstein said. “Last year will add to our focus and the motivation we come out with this year.”
Northwestern might have a little extra motivation of its own this year. During its match today, Northwestern will celebrate the 1997 team that advanced to the Round of 16 at the NCAA Tournament. Expect Northwestern to try to honor the team with two wins this weekend.
To pull out a victory, Iowa will have to forget about the long history of struggles against the team from Evanston. The Cats hold a 14-2 advantage over Iowa since 2003, including eight-straight wins dating to 2011. Overall, Northwestern leads the series, 67-21.
Iowa’s recent history against Illinois hasn’t been any better. The Hawkeyes have been unable to win a single point in six of their last 13 matches against the Illini.
“We can perform a lot better than we have been,” freshman Jason Kerst said. “The recent success hasn’t been there against these two teams, but that makes this weekend a great opportunity to get this season and history back on the right track.”