Tennis matches at the University of Michigan can shake even the most unshakable players.
"Whenever you go there, they always have these big crowds and the fans are into it and they're always making all these noises," said Northwestern tennis player Nida Hamilton, a senior from Hinsdale Central. "It's a really tough place to play."
In early April when the Wildcats were ranked No. 11 in the country, they dropped a heated 4-3 decision at Michigan. It was Northwestern's first Big Ten Conference loss of the season.
Payback came last weekend, in various forms.
The Wildcats, now 19-6 and No. 16 in the country, edged No. 17 Michigan 4-3 in the championship of the Big Ten Conference tournament on Sunday at the Combe Center in Evanston. Northwestern made sure to make the Wolverines (21-4) feel right at home while they were visiting.
"We were putting the match out there on Facebook, we were sending people emails, we were telling everyone we could about the match," said Hamilton, who won her singles match against Michigan and also teamed up with Lake Forest product Maddie Lipp to win a doubles match as well. "We wanted to get a really good crowd there."
The extra advertising helped. The Wildcats drew an enthusiastic standing room only crowd to the Combe Center, which seats 300 and will host the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament next weekend.
"We normally get about 100 people out to our matches, and for the Big Ten championship I bet there were at least 500 people there," Hamilton said. "It was incredible, the best crowd I've ever seen in my four years here. You could hear people cheering, people were packed in, standing all over the place."
Late arrivers were out of luck.
"I had some friends come late and they couldn't get a seat," said Lipp, a freshman. "People were standing behind the stands. It was an amazing environment and I think it really helped us."
Hamilton and Lipp, the only Chicago-area players on the Northwestern roster, gave the crowd plenty to cheer about. Their wins were key in helping Northwestern keep an impressive streak alive.
The Wildcats have now won either the Big Ten regular season championship or the conference tournament title for 16 consecutive years.
"That's one of the reasons we got so many people to come out (for the conference championship), because we really stressed what a big deal it was. There was a lot on the line for us," Hamilton said. "As a senior, you don't want to be part of the class that lets that streak break. I'm so glad we won it."
Now it's on to the NCAA tournament. With the win over Michigan, NU likely secured homecourt advantage for the first and second rounds. Only 16 teams get to host the early rounds, and so the Big Ten championship was also a deciding factor for NCAA hosting honors.
The Wildcats will welcome in Miami (Ohio), Notre Dame and DePaul next week. Matches, starting at noon on Friday, will be played at the Vandy Christie Tennis Center, NU's outdoor facility along Sheridan Road. The Combe Center is the indoor facility.
"I'm really excited for my first NCAA tournament," Lipp said. "We've played our best tennis in tournaments this season so I'm confident we're going to do really well."
Lipp and Hamilton developed their chemistry quickly. Even though this was their first season as doubles partners, they had a familiarity about each other's games. They had met before in numerous juniors tournaments, and Hamilton defeated Lipp in the IHSA state tournament.
"The Chicago area was really strong in tennis when we were in high school. We saw each other a lot and it was fun to play against Nida," Lipp said. "It's more fun to play with her, though. I think we make a good team because we balance each other out. We set each other up well and we've got good chemistry."
The senior will be depending on the freshman to keep that good chemistry going. Hamilton's tennis career will last only as long as Northwestern's run in the tournament.
"It hasn't hit me yet that I'm so close to the end," said Hamilton, who is planning to attend graduate school for physical therapy. "I like our draw. I think we have a good shot to be playing for a while."
More in Evanston:
Northwestern is busy playing host lately.
This weekend, the women's lacrosse team is hosting the American Lacrosse Conference tournament championship at Lakeside Field. The tournament, which involves Northwestern, Florida, Johns Hopkins, Penn State, Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Michigan, will crown its champion at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Northwestern, which has won seven national titles in the last nine years, played Ohio State in Friday's semifinal. Florida and Johns Hopkins played in the other semifinal.
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