On the ninth shot of the rally, Runhao Hua watched the ball sail past him and pumped his fists in the air.
Hua — a senior on the No. 15 Michigan men’s tennis team — secured the Wolverines’ second point of the day with his three-set victory over UCLA’s Evan Zhu, though his win would ultimately not be enough, as Michigan fell to the Bruins, 4-2.
“He came out great, lost that second set, but he got on top in the third,” said Michigan coach Adam Steinberg. “We needed that because it gave us our second point, and he got off the court and gave confidence to (senior Davis Crocker) and (junior Myles Schalet). That’s a great win for him. To beat the No. 2 player from UCLA is terrific, good for his confidence.”
The Wolverines came into the Sweet Sixteen matchup with quite a bit of momentum after shutout wins at home in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. From the beginning of the doubles matches, the fighting spirit of Michigan was evident.
Each match was close, though the Wolverines were bested by the talented Bruins lineup and lost the doubles point. But Michigan’s ability to keep the matches close against No. 2 UCLA was a good sign for Steinberg.
“They were super motivated for this match,” Steinberg said. “I thought they fought amazing today. … It shows that we can compete with anyone in the country. They can compete with anybody from ranked No. 1 in the country to wherever. I think it should give our program a lot of confidence.”
Once the singles play started, the trend of close matches continued. Three of the six matches went to three sets — Hua at No. 2, Schalet at No. 3 and Crocker at No. 6. But only one of those matches went the way of the Wolverines. The lone win — Hua’s 6-1, 2-6, 6-1 victory — came after Michigan was already down 3-1 and was too little, too late.
Moments after Hua’s win, Schalet lost his own three-set match, leaving Crocker’s match unfinished. Crocker was leading in the third set, but both Schalet and Crocker would have had to win for the Wolverines to move on to the quarterfinals.
Freshman Mattias Siimar earned Michigan’s only straight-set win at the No. 4 singles spot. Siimar was the only Wolverine to go undefeated through the three rounds of the NCAA tournament — and the only freshman in the singles lineup.
“That was one of the best matches he’s played all year,” Steinberg said. “He played a complete match and served very well. I was happy for him that he got a win at the NCAA tournament — he deserved it today. He played very solid.”
Siimar is one of just three freshmen that saw playing time for Michigan this season in a lineup dominated by upperclassmen, including four seniors. With the departure of seniors Carter Lin, Alex Knight, Hua and Crocker, the Wolverines will have quite a few spots to fill next year.
But after his team earned its first Sweet Sixteen berth in ten years, Steinberg has no plans to lower his expectations.
“We have four or five new freshmen coming in, and it’s going to be exciting,” Steinberg said. “I think this is a great springboard for what we want to do. It should be the norm to come to the Sweet Sixteen for the University of Michigan. It shouldn’t be a surprise when we do these things.”