Champions keep playing until they get it right.
The quote may have come from tennis legend Billie Jean King, but the Michigan women’s tennis team has embodied it through and through this season.
All the way to an outright Big Ten title.
Despite a 4-3 loss to Florida in Gainesville on Thursday, the Wolverines (15-5 overall, 11-0 Big Ten) rallied to come away with two straight shutouts in New Brunswick and College Park to add another piece of hardware to their trophy case.
Saturday, Michigan blanked Rutgers (9-9, 1-7), 5-0, with dominant play from doubles pairs No. 1, seniors Kate Fahey and Brienne Minor, and No. 2, junior Giulia Pairone and freshman Anca Craciun, who have acted as doubles-point closers throughout the season. Along with strong doubles play were convincing singles victories from Fahey, Minor and sophomore Alyvia Jones to clinch the win.
With the postseason approaching, the Wolverines made some changes to the matchups to assure the absolute best scenario going into the clinching meet.
The No. 3 doubles spot has fluctuated all season, usually occupied by Jones and either junior Chiara Lommer or fellow sophomore Bella Lorenzini. Occasionally, a win will come from No. 3, but the pair, whoever it may be, has a losing record this season.
However, on Sunday, it all finally clicked. And what better of a time than the last match of the regular season?
Jones was paired up with junior Lera Patiuk and played some of their best tennis this season. Mirroring the No. 2 doubles win secured just before their own by Pairone and Craciun, Jones and Patiuk beat their opposing Maryland (3-16 overall, 1-8 Big Ten) duo, 6-2.
“We just work really well as a team,” Jones said of her new doubles partner. “We had really good energy, and we both ended up playing pretty well, so that helps on the court.”
Added Pairone: “I think we’re improving so much in doubles. As the season went on, we’ve been playing so much better. And I think we’re really helping each other out like we’re supposed to. So it’s really good to get that first point and it’s helping a lot when we get into singles.”
The Wolverines’ performance in singles play was just as impressive. Pairone was the first to score a singles point for Michigan, defeating her opponent, 6-1, 6-0. Fahey and Jones soon followed suit, coming away with victories of 6-2, 6-1 and 6-0, 6-1, respectively. Minor slammed it home, 6-4, 6-1, and gave the Wolverines their final point and their conference title.
“It’s a long season of Big Tens, a lot of good teams,” said Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein. “I’m just happy for the girls, especially this weekend — you know, they took care of business. Today we actually played really well. So, I’m just proud of them, happy for them. To go undefeated in this conference isn’t easy, so it definitely feels good.”
In contrast to last season, when they won the Big Ten Tournament as the clear underdog, the Wolverines have shown they are a force to be reckoned with.
“We’re just looking for that balance, and that we can count on everybody,” Bernstein said. “So, if we ever get to that, I don’t know that we’ve been that yet this year – you know, all three doubles teams clicking and all six singles players at the same time. If we have that, if we can get to that place, we’re pretty tough to beat.
“But I think as far as all of us, if I look down the line, I think everyone is feeling pretty confident, which is where you want to be at the end of the year. I think we’re peaking.”
This season wasn’t always pretty and the team has seen its fair share of ups and downs, but with the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments approaching, Michigan, the Big Ten Champions, needs to follow King’s advice: to keep playing until they get it all right.
“We’re really playing as a team, and not just as individuals,” Pairone said. “And I think just going into the tournament, we’re feeling really confident, and we know we can do very well. But we also know that we have to keep working and make sure that we’re getting better. Feeling like we’re champions doesn’t stop us from continuing to work hard.”