This weekend, the Michigan men’s tennis team hosted this year’s edition of the ITA Midwest Regionals with a bid to the 2017 ITA Fall Championships at stake.
In the quarterfinals, Michigan senior Alex Knight, ranked 51st nationally, faced off against Ohio State freshman John McNally with a chance at a spot in the semifinals. McNally was the No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school and played in three of four junior Grand Slams before entering the Buckeyes’ freshman class, making it as far as the Round of 16 at Wimbledon and the doubles quarterfinals at the French Open.
Knight, a former blue-chip recruit ranked as high as No. 5 nationally, fought well in the most high-profile match in the tournament.
With the majority of the men's team out in early rounds, Knight struggled at first against the talented Ohio State freshman, with all attempts to break serve thwarted. He faced a break of his serve in the first set's game four but managed to stave off McNally. Knight regained momentum and broke McNally in the eighth game, eventually taking the set, 6-4. Knight’s second set was remarkably easy, as he stomped to a 6-1 set victory to take the match.
Knight’s teammates, senior Runhao Hua and freshman Mattias Siimar, also faced tough competition in the quarterfinals. Hua was pitted against No. 104 Alex Lebedev, who had previously made the doubles semifinals in the tournament. Hua jumped out to a first set lead, winning 6-4, but struggled early in the second set against Lebedev. He fell behind 1-3, before ultimately dropping the set 3-6. But in the third set, Hua broke his opponent early and took a commanding 3-0 lead, ultimately resulting in a dominant set and match, which ended 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
Siimar came up against an eventual semifinalist in Ohio State’s Martin Joyce. He took the first set 7-6, despite some controversy with calls overturned by the court umpire. Siimar had a chance to break and take the second set at 6-5, but he was unable to muster the points. The second set went to a relatively uncompetitive tiebreaker, with Joyce dominating 6-7 (3) and taking the set.
After two grueling sets, Siimar managed to get an early break on Joyce, but nothing materialized out of the positive momentum, and the third set ultimately resulted in a 2-6 thrashing with the match point sealed on an unfortunate net foul.
“I’m thrilled, but we obviously wanted three (in the semifinals),” said Michigan coach Adam Steinberg. “Alex had a great win against (McNally), one of the best of his career.”
Both Alex Knight and teammate Runhao Hua progressed to the semifinals, and ultimately faced each other in the singles final. Hua took the final and the title, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
Both Knight and Hua also competed together in doubles and managed to progress to the final against Wisconsin’s duo of Chema Carranza and Josef Dodridge. Together, Hua and Knight had played in about a dozen matches previously, and the physical toll showed on the court against the Badgers. The Wolverines jumped out to a strong 7-5 first set victory, but they could not put away their challengers. They were broken early in the second set and the Badgers duo served out the second set comfortably, winning 3-6. In the final frame of the doubles final, the tension increased and each duo broke serve points and dropped served points, but the Badgers managed to pull out a 10-12 victory and the doubles title for Wisconsin.
Steinberg said Monday that it was a great performance for the team and that it was especially good to gain experience against both national and international players who compete in major tournaments on a global stage.
“Our guys need to experience that as much as possible,” he said.
The Wolverines managed to secure one title, and they will take away a wealth of experience against conference rivals and other nationally-ranked competitors that will only further prepare them for conference play in January.