After racing out to a 4-0 lead in the first set, fifth-year Connor Johnston coasted to a 6-3 victory over Michigan State’s Jarreau Campbell. But the second set was a far different story as Campbell came out ultra-aggressive, ripping serves at Johnston.
As the two players traded blows, it was Johnston who delivered the knockout punch, breaking Campbell’s serve and volleying his way to a 6-4 second-set victory.
Johnston’s 6-3, 6-4 victory fueled the No. 17 Michigan men’s tennis team (13-2 overall, 13-1 Big Ten) to a 7-0 shutout over the Spartans (5-11, 5-9) at the Varsity Tennis Center. It was the fourth shutout in a row for the Wolverines.
“This sounds counterintuitive, but I tried to go after his hard serves,” Johnston said. “If you let him come after you, he’s going to stay aggressive. I took two steps back and tried to be aggressive and go after his serves.”
Johnston was not alone in strategically countering Michigan State’s aggressive play with finesse at the baseline and strong groundstrokes. At No. 2 doubles, Michigan State’s Reed Crocker and Drew Keene relentlessly charged the net. Senior brothers Kristofer and Mattias Siimar utilized pinpoint lobs and passing shots to dominate, 6-2.
“They had great control of the ball,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “When they have a target, something to hit through, they’re tough. If you come in, you better bring something extraordinary or else they’re going to beat you through the middle, they’re going to dip the ball, or they’re going to be able to lob.”
Johnston and freshman Nino Ehrenschneider followed up with a 6-2 victory of their own, securing the doubles point for the Wolverines. Ehrenschneider followed his doubles performance with a swift 6-0, 6-1 victory over Michigan State’s Luke Baylis at No. 5 singles, pushing Michigan’s lead to 2-0.
Freshman Jacob Bickersteth put on a groundstroke clinic at No. 4 singles, defeating Graydon Lair, 6-0, in the first set, highlighted by a backhand winner at set-point. Unforced errors from Bickersteth allowed Lair to stick around in the second set, but Bickersteth kept his composure en route to a 6-3 victory in the second.
After a dominant first set victory, senior Nick Beaty found himself down 3-2 in his second set, struggling with a strong serving performance from Josh Mukherjee at No. 3 singles. But Beaty was able to serve his way back to 4-4, before grinding out a 6-4 victory to take the match for the Wolverines.
“I thought he served great today,” Steinberg said. “He always fights as hard as he can. I thought on the return game he was inconsistent in the second set, but his serve helped him a ton because he was holding easily and serving really well.”
At No. 1 singles, Michigan State’s Nick Williams was hitting huge serves and took every opportunity he had to rush the net against junior Andrew Fenty. Yet Fenty’s debilitating returns never let Williams gain control.
“(Fenty) hit some incredible returns,” Steinberg said. “(Williams) started missing his first serve because of it, (and he) was trying to overhit. With (Fenty) you really have to hit your spots and serve the right way otherwise he’s going to hurt you on the return for sure. He turns defense into offense quickly.”
In a match in which Michigan didn’t drop a single set, the one moment of adversity was the weather forcing the match inside, just after Michigan had gained some momentum from winning the doubles point.
Judging by the score, however, the Wolverines didn’t miss a beat.
“I don’t think it hurt us at all,” Steinberg said. “The guys were super excited about this match. Indoors, outdoors, it didn’t matter.”