Freshmen provide early glimpse of Michigan’s bright future

Sunday, January 27, 2019 - 3:53pm

Andrew Fenty and Pat Maloney spearheaded Michigan's 4-1 win over NC State.

Andrew Fenty and Pat Maloney spearheaded Michigan's 4-1 win over NC State. Buy this photo
Mike Zlonkevicz/Daily

When Andrew Fenty and Patrick Maloney inked their letters of intent to play tennis for Michigan coach Adam Steinberg, the two freshmen had all the boxes checked. That is, except for one.

Fenty — who enters the season as the No. 4 youth player in the nation — has put his skills to the test both at home and abroad, competing in the U.S. Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Australian Open junior draws last year. Maloney, meanwhile, took home last year’s New York State singles title, earning All-American honors in the process. With a combined 19-5 record against other five-star recruits in the 2018 cycle, the duo headlines the NCAA’s fifth-ranked class. At an initial glance, it’s tough to find a flaw in the talented tandem’s paths to Ann Arbor.

The missing element? Team-style tennis.

“It’s no longer about me, it’s about the team,” Fenty said. “I have to push the guy next to me. And that’s what (Maloney and I) do — that’s why we’re different than other (freshmen).”

After a long fall of individual competition, the 24th-ranked Wolverines entered the team season with their sights sets on Saturday’s ITA Kick-Off. Thanks to last year’s Sweet Sixteen run — Michigan’s first since 2008 — the team earned the right to host the tournament for the first time in program history, drawing national attention to Fenty and Maloney’s home debut.

The two new kids on the block didn’t disappoint.

Fenty and Maloney showed flashes of maturity beyond their years Saturday, adding to their cumulative 4-1 record in the process. Given the program’s heavy emphasis on energy and leadership, Fenty and Maloney’s dominant team start is more than just impressive — it’s a sign that they can become program cornerstones.

After falling short in a pair of doubles tiebreakers against No. 22 Alabama last weekend, Fenty and Maloney spearheaded the team’s significant improvement in its 4-1 win over North Carolina State. Fenty and sophomore Mattias Siimar cruised to a 6-1 victory, while Maloney and senior Myles Schalet captured a 6-2 win to grab the morning’s first point at the Varsity Tennis Center, where the Wolverines boast a 37-3 record since 2016.

Fenty and Maloney’s singles prowess, coupled with their willingness to adapt, have made it easy for Steinberg to welcome them into the doubles fold immediately.

On the singles court, the tandem’s debut nearly ignited a comeback in Tuscaloosa when Fenty shocked Patrick Kaukovalta — the country’s No. 41 player — 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, while Maloney held on against Alexey Nesterov for a gripping 7-6, 6-4 win. Despite building upon those performances by securing their respective first sets against the Wolfpack on Saturday, neither of their would-be singles victories counted once Michigan earned the clinching point.

With two strong outings now in the books, Steinberg is starting to see the resemblance between his newcomers and last year’s graduating class.

“(Fenty and Maloney) are unbelievable,” Steinberg said. “They’ve become a lot more aggressive at this level. They’re such great competitors and they’re loving every minute of it. Besides being good players, they’re experienced and they know pressure. The two of them have been a spark for our team for sure. It’s always tough when you lose four seniors and bring in new guys hoping they’ll fit in well, but they’re doing great.”

From the rookies’ perspective, they’re not here to devote their freshmen seasons to learning the ropes — rather, they’ve put in the work to help propel this year’s group to its full potential.

“We have to grow up fast,” Fenty said. “I don’t think of myself as ‘the freshman’ on the team, I think of myself as a leader, and I know (Maloney) does too. We try to push the guys and do our job.”

If Fenty and Maloney continue to do their jobs at this level, last year’s Sweet Sixteen appearance won’t be a fluke. And, after watching his youngsters prosper in their first two team matches, it’s safe to say Steinberg can check off that final box.