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Men’s tennis holds on for 11th straight victory over MSU

By Jake Lourim, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 28, 2014

The clock on the wall behind senior Alex Buzzi read almost 10 p.m. Friday, which meant the Michigan’s men’s tennis match against Michigan State was nearing its fifth hour.

More importantly, Spartan fans’ “Go Green! Go White!” chants were getting louder — at almost every point now — at Michigan’s Varsity Tennis Center.

So Buzzi stepped up and hammered an ace down the middle of the court, ending the night.

The Wolverines stifled their in-state rival’s upset bid, 4-3, for their 11th straight win in the series.

This time, though, Michigan had to battle after losing the top three singles matches to the Spartans for the first time in 15 years.

The Wolverines’ winning streak spans 10 years now, but the Spartans are closing the gap. Last season, they lost 4-3, the closest margin during the streak. They also made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since it began in 1972.

So Friday, Michigan State came in with more than a little to play for.

Early in the No. 1 doubles match, a Michigan shot skittered along the tape and landed on the other side, fighting off a break point and allowing the Wolverines to pull ahead 3-2.

From then on, it was clear not much was going to separate the teams in one of the three closest battles of the past 15 years.

“Any time you face an underdog, there’s a target on you,” said redshirt junior Justin Rossi. “You want to stay hungry, too, because you know that team is bringing it with everything they got. You’ve just got to match their intensity.”

A sign in the Michigan locker room reads, “The hungry dog hunts best, and the hungriest dog hunts better.” The Spartans were hungry, and the Wolverines had to match them.

In former All-American Evan King’s career, the Wolverines outscored Michigan State 27-6, and King never lost. King’s departure has posed an issue for Michigan at the top of the lineup all season, and Friday, it gave the Spartans an advantage.

Rossi earned the Wolverines’ third point with a tough 6-2, 7-6 (7-0) win over Michigan State’s Gijs Linders. Down love-40, he fought off three straight set points to force a second-set tiebreaker and won the tiebreaker easily, 7-0.

“I just wanted to get a good start,” Rossi said. “Serve well, make a lot of first serves, just play my game. He came out with some good shots late in the second, and I just tried to get on top of them. My goal was to get the first three points, and then it would be a little easier.”

That match proved to be pivotal after junior Vlad Stefan lost his eighth straight singles match, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.

Then, all eyes turned to Buzzi and Michigan State’s Brett Forman, who were tied at three in the third set.

In front of a noticeably partisan Michigan State crowd — 370 fans were in attendance, at least half of which were cheering for the Spartans — Buzzi and Forman played long rallies on almost every point.

As had been the case, all night, when one player went down, he fought to come back.

“When we really started to get to crunch time of the match, some of our guys really stepped up and played well and came up with some really good returns and volleys,” said Michigan coach Bruce Berque.

Finally, Buzzi broke Forman to go up 4-3. He fought off three break points on his next service game to go up 5-3.

The Michigan State fans began cheering one last time before Buzzi’s match point. But the Michigan senior silenced them.

“It’s just yelling — if anything, I think it helps fuel my game,” Buzzi said. “If they’re going to be loud, so be it.”

After his clinching ace, the only sound in the building was Buzzi’s roar.