ORLANDO — As Michigan sophomore Caiden Baxter battled it out against Alabama’s Lauren Haneke-Hopps, suspense filled the air. The crowd reacted to each point emphatically, with the two sets of fans taking turns bellowing out chants of school pride. Baxter’s normally cheerful on-court persona became gradually replaced with a fixated, stoic expression.
This was by far the biggest match of Baxter’s young career so far — the finals of the team competition at Wheelchair Tennis Nationals. He had been thrown into this position, selected to fill the shoes of the spectating graduate student Spencer Heslop, who set the tournament alight with an undefeated record but sat out the team final for religious reasons. Competing against a player with a far superior rank, winning this match would forever solidify the Baxter name in Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness lore.
Quickly, however, the match became meaningless.
Baxter and partner Chris Kelley had already lost the doubles match against Alabama’s Thomas Venos and Jeremy Boyd, despite getting out to a hot start. While this result wasn’t unexpected, it meant the pair would have to win both of their singles matches against Alabama to secure the title. Kelley’s chances were high, but Baxter would have to play to the very best of his abilities for the entire match in order to have a chance.
For much of the match, Baxter did just that. He served expertly, flustering Haneke-Hopps early on with a number of aces. Crucially, Baxter reeled in his inconsistency, leaving it to Haneke-Hopps to make the first mistake.
Defying expectations, Baxter took the first set 6-4.
But at that point, the title was already Alabama’s. Putting his strength on full display, Venos had quickly overpowered Kelley. From start to finish, Venos dictated the pace of the match, smashing return after return past the exhausted Kelley. In dominant fashion, Venos won, 6-1, 6-2, securing Alabama’s fourth consecutive wheelchair tennis trophy.
Despite the most significant set win of his career, Baxter quickly learned that the outcome of his match would mean nothing for Michigan’s title aspirations. But for the team, regardless of the outcome, this match mattered for far more.
“We started this program within the past year,” Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, the director of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness program, said. “Being here at all was step one. And look at everything we came away with: Three academic all-Americans, a sportsmanship award, two second-place finishes — you can’t really ask for more than that.”
At the tournament, Michigan was very much the new kid on the block. The team had only recently gained enough facility access to begin practicing with each other regularly. A number of the team’s athletes had never participated in a competitive event before, and many had chalked Michigan off before the play even began. Countless hours of meetings, planning, training and negotiating had gone into making the establishment of this program and this team a reality.
“For these athletes, to be (at Nationals) after being asked to be student-athletes, development officers, strategic planners, business moguls — they’ve had to do everything to run this program,” Okanlami said. “I have no words to truly say how proud I am of this group and of all the supporting staff that have allowed us to become what we are right now and what we hope to be in the future.”
Even before Michigan advanced to the finals, people were beginning to take notice of the waves the program made in Orlando. Throughout the tournament, a number of spectators, coaches and players stopped by the Michigan section to compliment the team and express how impressed they were with the speed at which Michigan’s program had grown.
The program’s social media engagements ballooned, receiving engagements from numerous Michigan alumni, members of Michigan’s Varsity Tennis team and, crucially, Michigan Athletics. Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness program was building something special, and people were beginning to catch on.
“I think that this (weekend) will provide some context and some inspiration for the institution to see what this group has been able to accomplish,” Okanlami said. “We don’t want recognition just because we want to be able to pat ourselves on the back, but because we want to be able to get access for the next group of students who want to compete alongside us at a University of Michigan that is supportive for students with disabilities.”
Despite a truly valiant effort, Baxter would go on to lose his match in a tiebreaker. Okanlami, too, fell just short in his Tier 3 final, narrowly bested by Arizona’s Owen Anketell in a thrilling third set tiebreaker.
For now, Michigan would have to settle for runner-up. But along the way, the team had accomplished far more than a trophy –– or a “shiny tennis dinner plate,” as Spencer Heslop dubbed it –– could ever give them.