Inconsistent play plagues men's tennis in losses at Northwestern and Illinois

By Brandon Handelsman , For the Daily
Published April 6, 2014

It’s has been an up-and-down year for the Michigan men’s tennis team.

The Wolverines began the season with three wins, promptly followed by a four-game losing streak, only to turn it around and win four straight. Since then, a similar pattern has formed, with Michigan never winning or losing more than two games in a row.

After a promising sweep of Nebraska and Iowa last week, the Wolverines reverted back to their inconsistent nature, dropping matches to Northwestern (3-4 Big Ten, 13-9 overall) and Illinois (4-2, 16-7), 6-1 and 5-2, respectively.

“We came up a couple sets short in most of those three-set matches, but I think Illinois deserves a lot of that credit”, said Michigan coach Bruce Berque. “The match against Northwestern was more disappointing. They played very well in singles, and I just don’t think we were at our best. They’re a good team too, so we knew this was going to be a tough weekend on the road.”

Michigan (3-4, 11-10) began the dual-match against the Wildcats on Friday by losing the doubles point with losses at the No. 1 and No. 2 positions. Seniors Alex Buzzi and Barret Franks, the Wolverines’ No. 1 duo, were defeated by Raleigh Smith and Mihir Kumar, 8-3, in the opening match. Juniors Alex Petrone and Michael Zhu stormed back with an 8-4 victory over Fedor Baev and Strong Kirchheimer, but senior Shaun Bernstein and freshman Kevin Wong dropped an 8-5 decision to Konrad Zieba and Sam Shropshire to give the doubles point Northwestern.

The Wildcats carried their momentum from its doubles win into the singles matches, claiming the first three singles to seal the dual-match in a blowout.

Petrone’s 6-4, 5-7, 1-0 upset victory over Smith gave Michigan its first and only point of the match. His effort was too little, too late, though, as the Wildcats had already sealed the victory. Petrone believes the final score against Northwestern didn’t reflect the Wolverines’ quality play, citing an inability to finish closely contested matches as the key to flipping the script.

“Could’ve went either way, I felt like,” Petrone said. “I feel like everyone needs to focus on what they need to do to win these close matches. If people improve on the things that are hurting them or getting them in trouble in these close matches, I think we’ll actually make a turnaround.”

The narrative was the same at Northwestern as it was against Illinois later in the weekend; the Wolverines simply couldn’t finish close matches in clutch situations.

Michigan looked like it was starting to turn it around in securing the doubles point and the first singles match off the court to open play against Illinois the following Saturday. Petrone and Zhu were first off the court with an 8-7 (7) win over Alex Jesse and Blake Bazarnik, winning the tiebreaker in seven straight points. Buzzi and Franks clinched the doubles point for the Wolverines after upsetting Tim Kopinski and Ross Guignon 8-7 (6).

Franks gave Michigan a 2-0 lead with his 6-2, 6-2 decision over Jullian Childers, but Illinois responded with four straight wins to take the match. Buzzi was defeated 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 by Bazarnik to hand the win to Illinois.

“When you have losses like these,” Berque said, “There’s not much time to dwell on them. We’ll get home late tonight, we’ll get one night off, and then we just gotta get right back to work. These guys know that.”

If Michigan ever wants to stop hovering around .500 all season, it is going to need to correct its crunch-time woes.