ORLANDO, FLA — In a day earmarked to go down as one of the most important milestones in the history of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness Program, the wheelchair tennis team experienced the extreme highs and lows that come with any collegiate tournament. Michigan came out victorious in its team match against Biola University off the back of a dynamic debut doubles performance from Spencer Heslop and Chris Kelley. The team won big in two of its four singles matches but fell painfully short in two others, including Kelley’s Tier 1 matchup. It wasn’t the fairytale dominant opening performance that the athletes would have been seeing in their dreams last night.
But that’s all they’ve ever wanted. A chance to be here, to compete. To feel valued as athletes, as competitors, as individuals — to simply have the opportunity, either to win or to lose.
The day began with the team competition as Michigan’s Heslop and Kelley took on fifth-seed Biola’s Henry Reyes and Krista Ramirez. From the outset, it was clear that Biola’s duo would have a difficult time competing with the combination of Heslop’s speed and Kelley’s fierce, well-placed returns. In a rare instance where Reyes was able to get a racket on a tame serve from Heslop, Kelley countered aggressively with a return that bounced hopelessly between Michigan’s outstretched arms, eliciting loud cheers from it’s entourage. Michigan would go on to take the match, 8-1.
To decide the team matchup, the duos were split into singles matchups, with Kelley taking on Reyes and Heslop taking on Ramirez. Reyes, a Tier 1 player, used his powerful return to his advantage early on, putting Kelley in uncomfortable positions on the periphery of the court. Gradually, however, Kelley found ways to counter Reyes’s power and exploit his relative lack of pace.
“(Reyes) is a counter-puncher,” Kelley said. “The harder I hit at him, the harder it was going to come back to me. So I tried to hit some loopier topspin serves to his backhand and not allow him to attack me.”
In a moment that would likely spell trouble for most players, Kelley’s tire blew out in between sets. However, Kelley didn’t mind all that much.
Ultimately, the switch paid off for Kelley, as he took the match, 6-4, 6-1.
For Heslop’s match against Ramirez, success came after a learning curve. Heslop kept the ball low and returned at speed whereas Ramirez hit deeper lobs, allowing her to move into position as the ball hung in the air.
“That (speed) was a challenge early on because there wasn’t much,” Heslop said. “I was trying to create my own and dictate it, not trying to kill it but control it.”
As Heslop learned to play the game at his pace, his serve also began to flourish. Whereas in the beginning of the match, Heslop was losing a frustrating number of points off of double faults, the second match saw Heslop’s high-velocity serve start to find the corners. As more and more of Heslop’s serves began to skip beyond Ramirez’s reach, the match quickly turned into a non-contest, with Heslop winning 6-2, 6-0.
After a successful morning, the tournament moved into the singles competition, wherein four of Michigan’s athletes played simultaneously.
In Tier 3, Feranmi Okanlami, the team’s program director, came up against the University of Alabama Huntsville’s Bing Zeng in a match that was over before it began. In a clinic of pinpoint lobs and strategic court placement, Okanlami raced out to a 3-0 lead and never looked back. While Zeng showed a few flashes of strategic insight on some cross-court returns, none were enough to win a game, as Okanlami took the match 6-0, 6-0.
In his first-ever competitive wheelchair tennis appearance, sophomore Caiden Baxter lined up against San Diego State University’s Manuel Gomez, the second-highest ranked player in Tier 2. From the onlooker’s perspective, it was clear which of the two players had been here before.
Throughout the match, Gomez exhibited a calm, technical play style, seemingly having to exert only minimal effort to make a number of impressive plays. Baxter, however, exhibited many signs of how nervous he was for the occasion. Baxter dropped a number of points on unforced errors, often misjudging the flight of Gomez’s returns or failing to clear the net on a backhand.
“I think that if I hadn’t been so nervous, or if I hadn’t put so much pressure on myself, would’ve done a lot better,” Baxter said. “I think that with more tournament experience, I’ll be able to control that more and not let it affect me as much.”
Compounding the issue, Baxter was dealing with an inflamed rotator cuff, and he struggled visibly with the pain throughout the match. Gomez capitalized, taking the match 6-2, 6-2.
In his third match of the day, Heslop took on Auburn University’s Matthew Anderson in a Tier 2 matchup. Anderson, a high-school student committed to Auburn, signaled an intriguing matchup for Heslop. A player who relies heavily on his court speed, Heslop had yet to encounter a player whose pace rivaled his own.
However, drawing upon his experiences from his earlier two matches, Heslop quickly found ways to capitalize on other areas Anderson simply couldn’t match up in. Early in the first set, Heslop seemed to find his serve, unleashing a series of hard, accurate serves each with enough topspin to trouble even the most experienced of players, let alone the inexperienced Anderson.
In a moment that was indicative of the overall arc of the match, Anderson hit a well-placed, spinning cross-court return after an impressive Heslop serve. Despite the quality of the shot, Heslop made up the ground with very little trouble, eliciting an audible sigh from Anderson as Heslop’s return bounced just out of reach. Heslop went on to take the match 6-1, 6-3, capping off what was an impressive start for the competitive wheelchair tennis debutant.
Undoubtedly, Kelley’s Tier 1 matchup against overall tournament number one seed Thomas Venos of Alabama was the one that garnered the most attention on the day. Despite some vicious serves from Venos, Kelley took the first set 6-4 off the back of his impressive mobility, accurate returns and a number of unforced errors from Venos.
However, Venos was able to clean up his act in the second set, coming out with a vengeance. Venos seemed to pick up on many of Kelley’s return patterns, positioning himself in places where Kelley tended to drop the ball most. Venos’s strategic adaptations and repeated monstrous backhands enabled him to trounce Kelley in the second set, 6-0, taking the match to a 10 point tiebreaker.
As the pair dueled, it was clear that they were both beginning to feel the magnitude of the moment. Both kicked their game up a gear, racing around the court and unleashing whatever they had left on their returns, leading to some riveting volleys.
Venos would go on to win the tiebreaker, taking the match along with it. But as the final point slipped out of Kelley’s reach, the air among the Michigan fans was filled not with frustrated silence but instead with optimistic applause and cheers.
The match was lost, but the real battle, the battle to build an elite adaptive sports program at Michigan, was very obviously won.