Courtesy of Jai Narain

ORLANDO, FLA — In Michigan’s second day at Wheelchair Tennis Nationals, one player grabbed all the attention. 

Spencer Heslop, a newcomer to competitive wheelchair tennis, has had an almost flawless debut in Tier 2 thus far. After knocking off Auburn’s Matthew Anderson in the singles competition and Biola University’s Krista Ramirez in the team competition yesterday, Heslop picked up where he left off today with a series of dominant victories. 

The first of Heslop’s successes came in Michigan’s team competition matchup against the second ranked San Diego State University. Despite the pedigree of SDSU’s Tier 1 partnership of Jose Estrada and Greg Hasterok, Michigan’s duo of Chris Kelley and Heslop used their impressive speed to stifle many of SDSU’s attacks at the net. As the match wore on, Heslop and Kelley grew in confidence, each providing affirming shouts after a moment of individual skill from the other. While close out of the gates, this doubles match was never really in question, with Michigan winning 8-5.

In the singles portion of the team match, Heslop faced Andrew Lee of SDSU, the highest seeded player in Tier 2, while Kelley squared off with Estrada, a fellow Tier 1 heavyweight. 

For Heslop, Lee presented a difficult challenge — he was not only the quickest and most agile player Heslop had faced yet but also the most experienced. From the outside, however, one would be forgiven for assuming that Heslop was the more experienced of the two. Leaning heavily upon his rapidly improving backhanded returns, Heslop coasted to victory, dominating the higher-ranked Lee and taking the team match for Michigan in a 6-2, 6-3 victory. 

Kelley, however, had to work much harder to secure victory in his match against Estrada. In a match which saw a number of volleys go into double digit returns, Kelley’s ability to convert decisive shots was ultimately the deciding factor. 

“In the first set, I was playing his game,” Kelley said. “Once I got the thumbs up that Spencer (Heslop) had won, I really started going after it.”

Go after it he did, as Kelley roared back to win the second set, 6-2, after losing the first, taking the match to a tiebreaker. As the match wore on, Estrada grew increasingly frustrated at his inability to put points away. When Kelley secured the winning point, Estrada threw his racket to the ground in disgust. 

“Going into it, we were confident,” Heslop said about Michigan’s victory over SDSU. “We’ve put in the work. We’re here to open the eyes of the collegiate division a little bit.”

Despite the grueling morning, Heslop and Kelley each had one more match to play, this time in their respective individual competitions. 

Looking to continue his perfect start in Tier 2, Heslop came up against Alabama’s Avery Downing, the second-ranked player in Tier 2 and the top ranked women’s player at the tournament. 

The match did not disappoint with each player taking turns showing off their impressive athleticism as they raced to return a well-placed lob from the other. Worries about Heslop’s energy levels began to mount, however, as a number of unforced errors cost him the first set, 3-6. 

A player whose performance depends heavily upon his self-confidence, Heslop rebounded quickly in the second set to win, 6-2, as the support from the Michigan crowd grew louder. As the two traded deep shots in the tiebreaker, the magnitude of Heslop’s improvement over the past two days came sharply into focus; despite the pressure of the moment, Heslop scarcely missed even the most challenging of returns, something which couldn’t be said during his initial matches. 

In what was his most impressive performance to date, Heslop went on to win the match 3-6, 6-2, 10-5, advancing to Saturday’s Tier 2 semifinals. 

In his Tier 1 match against SDSU’s Hasterok, Kelley displayed a ruthless technicality and precision indicative of a player eager for the next challenge. After rushing out to an impressive 6-1 first set victory, Kelley never looked back, seemingly unaffected by the fatigue of playing his third consecutive match of the day in 85 degree heat. Kelley breezed to victory, 6-1, 6-3.

Elsewhere, Michigan’s other athletes had mixed results. 

Alex Saleh, who had a bye on Thursday, put on a clinic of looped returns against Colorado’s Kyle Taulman, scarcely allowing him to get into a settled position on the court. As a result, Saleh coasted to victory, winning 6-2, 6-1 and advancing to Saturday’s Tier 3 semifinals. 

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, too, faced very little resistance from Biola’s Krista Ramirez and punched Michigan’s second ticket to the Tier 3 semifinals. 

Michigan’s Tier 2 athletes, however, failed to mirror the success of their Tier 3 counterparts. Matthew Fritzie, in his tournament opening match against SDSU’s Lee, simply couldn’t cope with Lee’s superior speed and accuracy of return, falling 2-6, 2-4. Despite a few glimpses of a strong serve, Caiden Baxter had no answer for Arizona’s Michelle Wilson’s cleverly sliced returns, and he fell by the same scoreline as Fritzie, 2-6, 2-4.

Barring these few disappointing performances, Michigan can come away from its second day at Wheelchair Tennis Nationals greatly pleased with its performance. 

However, much of Michigan’s tournament journey still hangs in the balance.

Heslop, out of a commitment to his faith, must sit Sunday out and will thus miss the final against Alabama. Despite numerous schedule change requests from Michigan to the USTA, who is hosting the tournament, the answer is clear. 

“We’re not going to adjust the schedule,” Jason Harnett, head of wheelchair tennis at the USTA, said. “Going into a final, you really don’t want to change anything, especially the schedule, because it would benefit Michigan and not help Alabama. But I love Spencer (Heslop) … It’s nothing personal for sure.”

Michigan will now have to select another member of its team to compete alongside Kelley in Sunday’s finals. The most likely choice is Baxter, who, despite his shaky start, is held in high esteem by his teammates and coaches, as they feel he possesses the talent to develop into a very skillful player.

The fate of Michigan’s debut performance on the competitive wheelchair tennis scene may rest on his shoulders.