4/4/18 Athell Bennett

Athell Bennett prepares to return the ball during a match against Northwestern.

Coming off of a 3-game losing streak to then-No. 7 Illinois, Michigan State and then-No. 11 Michigan, the Boilermakers (8-12, 0-5 Big Ten) almost found redemption against an unrelenting Northwestern team, but ultimately fell 4-3, extending their losing streak to four games.

In doubles, seniors Gergely Madarasz and Renan Hanayama easily won their match, 6-2, while sophomore Athell Bennett and freshman Mateo Julio fell 6-4. Deciding the first point of the night was freshman Maksymilian Raupuk and junior Dominik Sochurek, who sealed the first doubles point for Purdue in three matches with a 7-6 (7-2) win.

With sophomore Stephan Koenigsfest out with an injury and the team not securing a doubles point since its California trip, head coach Pawel Gajdzik saw a need for change. Which meant splitting up the No. 59-ranked pairing of Madarasz and Bennett.

While both players are learning how to play with a new teammate, the younger half of the ranked duo is seeing growth within himself.

“I think I’m doing a good job, even though we’re not winning all the time,” Bennett said. “I see my teammate just being a little bit more relaxed when I’m talking to him. And he’s listening to me, and what I say is working, so I think that I can handle the leadership role.”

In singles, Raupuk fell early in straight sets, just over an hour into singles play, to opponent Nick Brookes, 6-3, 6-3. With Koenigsfest sidelined, the freshman has moved up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup, but struggled along the way.

Next to drop a match in straight sets was Renan Hanayama, falling 6-3, 6-1. Madarasz followed suit, losing 7-5 (7-4), 6-3.

But that’s when the momentum shifted.

With six of the team’s eight players being underclassmen, there are bound to be tough learning moments and valuable winning experiences along the way. Last night, there were both for a mixture of young players.

“Right now, there are growing pains, and they are very painful, but you slowly start seeing growth,” Gajdzik said. “We know that they are high level players, but we didn’t see that at the beginning of the year for X, Y and Z reasons. But now they’re getting there, we’ve put in the work. We’re catching up to where we want to be.”

With Julio and Bennett playing next to each other at the third and fifth spots, respectively, the two underclassmen both saw their matches go to a third set. Once each player was leading 4-2, they both swept the remaining games to win by 4 games each. Julio finished 6-4, 1-6, 6-2, while Bennett won 6-1, 1-6, 6-2.

And then there was one.

Freshman Javier Rodriguez, at the fourth spot, battled out a three-set thriller to Northwestern’s Antonioni Fasano. After taking the first set 6-3, Fasano stole the second set in a tiebreak, winning 7-6 (7-4).

With the whole crowd cheering Rodriguez on, it became evident how members of this young team support each other no matter the score. Multiple times, the team chanted “Let’s go Javy!” on the sidelines, only fueling the freshman to play harder.

Having the team supporting you makes a world of difference, as Bennett explained after the match.

“It definitely gives you a lift. The adrenaline rush that you get is unbelievable,” Bennett said. “I played a few last year and I won a few, but I think it just helps. Its kind of hard too, because you get nervous, everyone watching your last match. It’s all on you. If you win, the team wins. If you lose, the team loses, so I think it’s hard, too.”

Headed to a decisive third set that would determine the match, both players battled every point. Rodriguez went down 3-5, until he brought the match within reach at 6-5. Ultimately, he couldn’t pull off the win, losing again 6-7 (4-7), sealing the match for the Wildcats.

Although Rodriguez lost, there was a moment late in the third set where he drew Fasano close to the net, then sliced a wicked cross-court shot. The team and coaches exploded with emotion.

“I was like, ‘Okay, this is a highlight reel. Hopefully we have this on the tape,’” Gajdzik said.

While Wednesday night’s dual didn’t help the team’s record, it helped it understand where to grow and how to learn from these close losses.

“It teaches us that we have to go back the next day and get better,” Bennett said. “Definitely practice harder, spend more time on the court. We know that we’re close with these teams. Even though we’re losing, we know that we’re right there. So it still gives us confidence to go to the next match and play the same.”

The team will host a pair of matches this weekend, facing No. 46 Wisconsin on Saturday and No. 31 Minnesota on Sunday. Both games are at noon at the Schwartz Tennis Center.

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