Virginia Tech’s Carlo Donato and Alberto Orso let out triumphant yells upon clinching a firmly-contested doubles point, leaving Jacob Bickersteth defeated and deflated in his first doubles start.
But a mere minutes later, the sophomore built on the confidence of his more typical role to the tune of straight sets, leading a wave of five singles wins that drowned any first-match slip ups.
The Wolverines’ turnover this offseason was relatively minimal. The Nos. 3/4 and No. 6 starters Mattias Siimar and Conor Johnson were the only departures, leaving an otherwise fully-intact singles lineup. It was the strength in these experienced numbers that guided the Wolverines to a 5-2 victory in the end.
“We didn’t expect (Virginia Tech) to play at that high of a level, so we lost some second sets and first sets,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “It was just that they fought really hard. They didn’t want to let their teammates down, that’s for sure.”
In terms of the Wolverines’ fight, there was no lack of adversity. Beyond the deficit of the doubles point, star senior Andrew Fenty never found his rhythm in a 6-0, 6-3 defeat. Additionally, the route to a clincher was obstructed by junior Ondrej Styler’s medical timeout-inducing dive in his third set.
But it never even felt precarious. And for Michigan, that’s due in large part to the established culture the team has built upon. This was put on clear display with rowdy cheers from veteran teammates from warm-ups to postgame. It even caught younger contributors in its wake.
“Our energy was obviously way better than theirs,” Bickersteth said. “I feel like that got Gavin Young over the hump of (clinching) because it’s tough playing as a freshman. You’re tight and nervous – I did it last year. But we stayed on top from the whole match and kind of crushed them in singles.”
When most of the pieces remain in place on a team, the goals of early-season outings can be refined towards acquiring as much experience as possible. The Wolverines have clearly embraced this goal, and Bickersteth’s attitude in the wake of his first doubles start is a fitting example.
The faster style and shortened format of the doubles matches caters towards playing more aggressive, mistake-free tennis – and there is no better way to learn this than getting thrown into the mix.
“It was just a little tight,” Bickersteth said. “But it’s good to be out there and get a match under my belt even though I lost.”
The breathing room to engage in these experiences comes from the wins of seasoned depth. Bickersteth’s ample experience despite his underclassmen status not only secured the easy singles point, but did so on Court No. 3 – his biggest stage yet.
“He’s played a lot in the last year and that was great for him, but he’s never played that high,” Steinberg said. “After losing the doubles I know he was disappointed, but he came out and got up big in singles and I think it changed his whole mentality. I was glad he finished a match like that – he needed that.”
There were similar arcs across the Varsity Tennis Center – such as senior Patrick Maloney, Bickersteth’s partner, achieving similar dominance on No. 4. Styler eventually pushed through his injury to a three-set win as well.
All of these simple victories from a lineup filled with known characters create a solid cushion where even in the wake of a close out-of-conference duel, a lot of in-game lessons have the chance to be learned without the stress of the big picture breaking through.
“I think it was what we needed,” Steinberg said. “A battle like that – to go back and realize that we have a lot of work to do. 5-2 wasn’t a (representative) score, it was tight.”