For a moment, it looked like the Michigan men’s tennis team’s season would end disappointingly in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Then, in a matter of minutes, redshirt sophomore David Crocker and junior Kevin Wong gutted out third-set singles victories, and the Wolverines avoided being upset Friday.

No. 24 Michigan defeated East Tennessee State, 4-3, in its tightest match of the season to advance to play No. 6 Wake Forest on the Demon Deacons’ home courts. The Wolverines improved to 18-0 on the season when securing the doubles point.

After the doubles-point victory, sophomore Carter Lin cruised to a 6-3, 6-1 victory in his singles match to put Michigan up, 2-0. This lead evaporated when sophomore Alex Knight lost in straight sets, junior Jathan Malik dropped a competitive third set and sophomore Leo Hua couldn’t hold on after taking the first set. 

Both Wong and Crocker had lost their first sets, 7-6, but each responded with 6-4 second-set wins. Then, Wong broke early in the third set. Crocker did, too, but he couldn’t keep the lead, and ended up at 5-5.

Crocker dominated the final two games — including breaking at love to seal the match — and seconds later, Wong clinched it for the Wolverines, who stormed onto the court and celebrated.

Saturday, Michigan nearly pulled what would have been the biggest upset of this year’s NCAA tournament.

The Wolverines started off with a bang, coming out with far more energy than Wake Forest, and it showed, as they pulled out tiebreaker wins at both the No. 2 and No. 3 doubles matches.

“That’s our identity,” said Michigan coach Adam Steinberg. “We feel like we’re going to play with better energy than anybody, we’re going to fight harder, we’re going to play together, we’re going to play for each other.”

Michigan went up 2-0 when Hua’s opponent, Wake Forest senior Romain Bogaerts, retired due to injury with Hua leading 6-1, 1-0.

The Demon Deacons rallied with straight-set wins at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 to gain a 3-2 edge over the Wolverines.

For the second straight day, Wong and Crocker had the opportunity to be comeback heroes. 

Needing both to pull out third-set victories, Crocker went ahead 5-3 and Wong fought to 4-4. Both players lost their next service games, though, and Wong dropped his match 6-4, 4-6, 4-6 to seal Michigan’s fate.

“I really felt we were gonna win the match when (Crocker) went up 5-3,” Steinberg said. “I told (the team) I hope the memory they have is not of the loss, but of just how hard they fought.”

Despite the loss, the team still finished with the third-most victories in school history with 21, the program’s highest win total since 1988. This season was also the first time Michigan reached the second round of the NCAA tournament since 2012.

“They brought Michigan tennis back,” Steinberg said. “The guys made Michigan tennis relevant again.”

The Wolverines now head into an offseason in which they won’t lose any players, and are welcoming two top-100 recruits to the fold.

“Our goal is to be national champions,” Steinberg said. “This will be a definite momentum builder going into next season. Our goal is to be No. 1. That’s what we want.”

Michigan looked every bit of a top-10 team Saturday, and Steinberg’s stated goal, though seemingly lofty, is something he has experienced. He won a national championship in 2006 as the head coach at Pepperdine.

Michigan tennis was put back on the map this season, but with the program heading back in the right direction, 2017 has a chance to be a special season.

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