Kate Fahey slammed her racquet against the court in frustration after watching yet another forehand sail long.
It was that kind of a start for the No. 10 Michigan women’s tennis team, which saw its Big Ten Tournament title defense begin on the wrong side of a lopsided upset. Ohio State took the Michigan Invitational by storm on Saturday, sweeping the hosts in an exhibition four-match doubles series.
When the dust settled, the Wolverines dodged a bullet. Because of the event’s exhibition status, results don’t factor into team and individual records — thus saving No. 10 Michigan from the stain of a 4-0 doubles loss against an unranked opponent.
The Buckeyes underscored their dominant performance by toppling the Wolverines’ 15th-ranked tandem of Fahey and fellow senior Brienne Minor, the NCAA’s 2017 singles national championship, in the top doubles match. As unforced errors mounted, the duo lacked energy in a 6-1 loss against Ohio State’s 47th-ranked pairing of Shiori Fukuda and Isabelle Boulais.
But if there’s anyone who can diagnose and cure the problem before its destructive onset, it’s Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein. Now in her 12th season at the helm of the program, the five-time Big Ten Coach of the Year has guided the Wolverines to seven Big Ten championships since 2010.
“(Doubles play) is something we’re working on,” Bernstein said. “It’s not just the result — it’s that our energy wasn’t there. They need to feel us, and I didn’t feel us in the building today.”
With the sour taste of the doubles sweep still lingering, Michigan took the court again — this time for an eight-match singles series against Tennessee. Highlighted by a Fahey comeback win, the Wolverines earned four victories against the Volunteers to cap off the afternoon. Fahey — a three-time All-Big Ten selection who entered the season tabbed as the nation’s No. 3 singles player — found herself in a quick 3-0 hole against Tennessee’s Sadie Hammond. With the set on the brink of slipping away, more glimmers of frustration began to shine through.
“My energy was a little negative,” Fahey said. “I was trying to yell and be expressive but it wasn’t in a positive way. I’m a super competitive person — I express my emotions a lot and everyone knows that. I shut down when I stay within myself, so I like to yell.”
Following the rocky start, Fahey found her footing during the match’s second changeover. She rallied to force a tiebreaker, but Hammond answered with a decisive 7-3 win to take the opening frame.
Instead of unraveling after seeing her comeback bid fall short, Fahey hit the reset button. The New Jersey native’s ability to manage her fierce competitive drive has earmarked her storied career, and she comfortably captured 6-1 victories in the ensuing two sets to win the match.
Fahey wasn’t the only Wolverine who put on a strong singles showing — Minor, junior Chiara Lommer and junior Giulia Pairone also secured victories against the Volunteers.
Lommer and Minor both won in straight sets — 6-1, 6-1 and 6-3, 7-5, respectively — while Pairone was put to the test in her Michigan debut. The junior transfer from Arkansas won the opening set, 6-4, before losing a tight tiebreaker in the following frame. Going into the third set of her singles match after already playing doubles, Pairone knew she was in a battle against both fatigue and Tennessee’s Gabby Schuck.
That didn’t stop Pairone — she came out firing on all cylinders, igniting an emotional spark that propelled her to a 6-1 win.
“(Pairone) was on a high level,” Bernstein said. “When you watch her, the biggest thing is that her energy is great. We’re really happy to have her.”
Though Saturday’s results weren’t encouraging, the Wolverines’ confidence didn’t waver in the slightest. If anything, the positive takeaways outweighed the shortcomings by showing a glimpse of this unit’s potential.
“We almost got to the Final Four my freshman year, and I really think we can do even better (this year),” Fahey said. “On a national level, we can do really big things with this group.”
When Fahey slammed her racquet on the court in frustration, it came away unscathed. Not even a scuff. Rather than breaking, the racquet lifted her to a roaring comeback over Hammond just moments later.
After a lackluster first day, Bernstein can only hope her team has the resilience of her star senior’s racquet.