Mattias Siimar was down 5-3 in the second set of his singles match, and the No. 3 seed Michigan men’s tennis team needed him to win to move ahead of No. 6 seed Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
The freshman battled back and won four straight games on his way to a 6-4, 7-5 match win in the fourth spot of the singles lineup. The victory propelled the Wolverines to a 4-1 win over the Badgers to advance to Saturday’s semifinal, where they fell to No. 2 seed Illinois, 1-4.
“That was a big win for (Siimar), winning that match on Friday,” said Michigan coach Adam Steinberg. “It was great for his confidence. He lost to that guy pretty badly a week before, two weeks before, so that was huge for him and the team.”
Friday’s quarterfinal began with Michigan’s No. 2 and No. 3 doubles pairs winning their matches — senior Alex Knight and freshman Harrison Brown by a score of 6-2 and the nation’s 72nd-ranked pair senior Runhao Hua and Siimar 6-3. The wins secured the doubles point for the Wolverines, putting them at a 1-0 advantage early.
“We’ve won, I think, seven or eight doubles points in a row now,” Steinberg said. “It’s been a big boost for us. Obviously on Friday — the first round of the Big Ten tournament for us — it was really important.”
Senior Carter Lin notched the first singles win of the day for Michigan with a straight-set win at the No. 5 singles spot. His match was close — 6-4, 6-4 was the final score — and foreshadowed a tight day for the Wolverines.
Junior Myles Schalet lost his match in three sets, giving up the only point of the day for Wisconsin. Knight, Hua and senior Davis Crocker all took their first sets to tiebreakers, but all three won those tiebreakers to go up a set on their opponents.
Michigan’s best chance to advance to the semifinals rested on the shoulders of Knight. After winning his tiebreaker, Knight fought for a 6-4 win in the second set to earn the individual match victory and secure the win for the Wolverines — a win that would not have come without strong play from the bottom half of the lineup.
“I think we have some of the best, if not the best depth of any team in the country,” Steinberg said. “The bottom of the lineup is so strong that we have a lot of confidence in those guys. With Carter and Davis, they’ve been tremendous through their four years, not just now, so it’s always a good feeling when I see those guys playing.”
Saturday’s competition began with Michigan winning the doubles point once again, just as it had on Friday. But another day of tight matches in the singles play came just after that, and this time, things didn’t go the Wolverines’ way. They didn’t win a first set in the singles play, setting them up for a long day.
Schalet lost a lopsided singles match 1-6, 0-6 — by far the most unbalanced loss of the competition for Michigan — and that quick loss allowed the Illini to tie the match early. Knight lost in straight sets as well to give Illinois a lead that the Wolverines were unable to overcome.
Lin lost a quick first set 2-6, then came back to win the second set, 6-2, and give Michigan an opportunity at its first singles win of the day. But Lin dropped the third set 3-6, and the Wolverines were in trouble.
Both Hua and Siimar got up 4-1 in their first sets, but neither could maintain the lead and lost the set, Hua 5-7 and Siimar in a tiebreaker. Hua recovered to win the second set, 6-4, but his match went unfinished in the third set when Siimar lost his match to end Michigan’s day.
Siimar once again found himself down 3-5 in the second set, but his comeback to tie the set at 5 games apiece fell short as he lost his match 6-7 (2-7), 5-7.
“We were up in a couple of them big and losing those first sets after winning the doubles point was not how we planned it, that’s for sure,” Steinberg said. “It hurt us. We couldn’t recover, and we tried to come back, and we did, you know, Davis came back, and (Hua) came back, and Carter came back, but it was just a little too late. We needed to grab a couple of those first sets and really put pressure on Illinois, and we couldn’t close it out, and that’s why we went home early.”
Closing out tight matches will become even more important for the Wolverines with the NCAA Tournament coming as the next — and final — event of their season.
“We need a little more belief when those moments come,” Steinberg said. “There’s going to be adversity, especially in the NCAA Tournament when it’s win or go home, so we have to stick together and play the Michigan way, no matter if we’re up or down.”