Before its season was cut short last year, the Michigan men’s tennis team was ranked fourth in the country, sporting a 14-3 (1-0 Big Ten) overall record, including five victories over top-10 teams.
The Wolverines are returning every player from last year’s squad, replicating an experienced, talented roster — with one major addition.
Blue-chip recruit Jacob Bickersteth arrived in Ann Arbor this year, bolstering a lineup already brimming with championship aspirations.
“I feel we have a great team,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “I feel we have one of the best teams in the country. I think the guys feel the same way. When the season presents itself to us, we’ll be ready.”
Bickersteth is no stranger to playing in the biggest moments, coming to Michigan after winning the 2019 Midwest Closed Tournament in dominant fashion as well as securing the Silver Ball in doubles at the 2019 Indoor Nationals.
But to Bickersteth, past success is just that — in the past. His focus is on adapting his game to the collegiate level, ready to make an immediate impact.
“The guys now hit it a lot harder,” Bickersteth said. “You’ve got to be ready for what they throw and match their pace.”
It’s one thing to acknowledge that, compared to junior tennis, college players are bigger, stronger and faster. Bickersteth probably gets a heavy dose of that during practice thanks to teammates such as 6-foot-6, 205-pound senior Teddy Oosterbaan.
Yet without having played a single match, Bickerseth already has a detailed plan to match the physical dominance of more seasoned opponents.
“I definitely need to use my forehand a lot as a weapon,” Bickersteth said. “It’s my biggest weapon. And then I need to come into the net more and be more aggressive, just looking for more first-rate tennis.
“I’m not the biggest either, so I need to use my legs more to create more power and always be ready.”
Bickersteth's attention to detail is one of the myriad reasons why he was one of the most highly touted recruits in the nation after graduating from Stanford Tennis Academy.
Yet there was never any doubt for him that Michigan was the perfect fit. At the end of the day, it was about more than just tennis.
“My grandma is in a wheelchair and she loves to see me play,” Bickersteth said. “(Ann Arbor) is very close to home so she can come watch me. She hasn’t really been able to watch me because all the tournaments are all over the country.”
There is no shortage of excitement regarding Bickersteth’s future as a Wolverine. Michigan is ready to compete for a national title and Bickersteth figures to play an integral role.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, nothing is guaranteed.
“We’re really taking it day-by-day this year,” Steinberg said. “We’re enjoying practicing right now and we don’t know what tomorrow holds. It’s definitely short-term goals every day.”
A 78-foot long tennis court is favorable for social distancing. But the Wolverines have seen how quickly playing teams nationwide can turn to struggling to play at all.
Every player’s experience was different during the quarantine. Those from warm-climate areas were able to continue playing outdoors while Michigan natives like Bickersteth dealt with unpredictable weather and often adapted to focus on indoor fitness and conditioning.
“It’s been tough,” Steinberg said. “Not just on us but on everybody — on all athletes on all teams. But our guys did a great job. I think it was a great diversion for them to exercise, go for runs, bike rides and different things and work on their fitness.”
Looking ahead towards such an unprecedented, unpredictable season, the Wolverines’ continuity makes them a dangerous team. Adding a player of Bickersteth’s caliber makes them a terrifying opponent.
Yet there is another ingredient.
“If there was ever a time that you need character, it’s now,” Steinberg said. “I tell these guys all the time that they’re special. Not just because they win matches, but they’re special people.”
While the season itself is flooding with uncertainty, Bickersteth has no shortage of faith in this team.
“It’s just a great environment,” Bickersteth said. “Everyone is improving everyday. We’re getting the most out of every practice, every workout, because it’s always push, push, push. I feel like we can do great things when the season starts.”
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