BY ZACH SHAW
Daily Sports Writer
Published April 28, 2013
A week after losing to No. 4 Ohio State at home, crushing any dreams of a Big Ten regular-season title, the No. 23 Michigan men’s tennis had an opportunity at revenge. The rivals met again Sunday in Columbus, this time for the Big Ten tournament title.
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The Buckeyes (14-0 Big Ten, 31-2 overall) were seeking a seventh Big Ten tournament title in eight years, but the Wolverines (11-3 Big Ten, 16-9 overall), playing in their first-ever Big Ten Tournament championship game, were looking for a little payback too.
Ohio State’s five, top-100 nationally ranked players eventually proved to be too much for the Wolverines. Michigan trailed throughout en route to another 4-0 loss to the national title contenders. The loss will be remembered most from the weekend, but the path to the team’s first championship game proved to be no cakewalk either; including two battles the Wolverines had to dig deep to win.
“We want to feel like every time we step on the court, we can win the match,” said Michigan coach Bruce Berque. “This weekend we got two very good battles. We had our backs against the wall both times, but I’m proud of the way we stuck with it and battled back.”
On Friday, the third-seeded Wolverines met with sixth-seeded Indiana after enjoying a first-round bye Thursday. The match didn’t start as planned for Michigan, who fell in the doubles round and appeared shaky when falling behind early in the first set of singles matches. Eventually the team settled in, cruising to a 4-2 victory.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Berque said. “Last time we played them it was very close, and I think we were almost lucky to win. This time after we fell behind, I thought we did a good job of staying focused and fighting back.”
Friday marked the first action for senior Evan King since being named the Big Ten’s Athlete of the Year — given to the best Men’s Tennis player — for the second year in a row. After falling in the doubles round 8-4, the 10th-ranked King went on to win in straight sets (6-1, 6-3) over Josh MacTaggart for his 10th-straight singles victory.
Saturday proved to be a much tougher test for the Wolverines. After losing to Minnesota, 4-3, on Mar. 24, the Wolverines knew it wouldn’t be an easy match for either side. Much like their match against Indiana, the Wolverines got off to a slow start, losing the doubles round and dropping several of the first sets.
“I knew we were in trouble,” Berque said. “The last few times we’ve played Minnesota, they’ve given us problems, and it looked like they would again. Fortunately, our guys kept battling, and we were able to come away with one.”
Slowly but surely, the Wolverines pieced together comebacks. Eventually, the score was tied at three, with sophomore Michael Zhu’s battle against Ruben Weber the only match remaining to decide the winner.
Falling in the first set 6-2 and trailing in the second set 4-0, Zhu had an extraordinary uphill battle before him. A furious rally in the second set culminated in a 7-6 victory, earning a third tiebreaker set. This proved to be no easier, as Weber and Zhu passed the lead back-and-forth. After four hours of play, Zhu completed his rally against Weber, edging him in the third set, 7-5.
“That was great to see,” Berque said about Zhu’s comeback. “He did a great job of staying with him and getting more aggressive. It was neck-and-neck the whole way, and he came up big for us in the end.”
While the Wolverines were celebrating the comeback effort, Ohio State remained on deck. Winners of 20 straight without a loss since Feb. 17, the Buckeyes would be the toughest challenge of the tournament. Despite Michigan’s efforts, the Buckeyes lived up to their billing, making quick work of the Wolverines by winning every set.
“Ohio State’s a great team,” Berque said. “We always try to think that we can win a match, but their talent won out today. I thought we fought hard and played some of our best doubles of the weekend, but in a nutshell we lost to a great team today.”
After advancing further than any Michigan team in the tournament’s nine-year history, the Wolverines hope to continue the momentum into the NCAA tournament. NCAA Regionals begin on May 10, and Berque says his team will be ready regardless of who or where they play.
“We don’t know who we play yet,” Berque said. “But we’re going to try to win the first match first for sure.