Bouncing balls. Squeaking sneakers. Guttural grunts. All are sounds one expects to hear when watching a tennis match, but they’re not the only ones present when watching the No. 24 Michigan men’s tennis team compete.
This is college tennis, after all. At any given moment during a meet, there are anywhere from three to six matches taking place simultaneously. But it’s not the balls, sneakers or grunts that are unique to this level of the sport.
It’s the echoes of shouting, chanting and team encouragement that fill the Varsity Tennis Center. At any moment during a meet, there are team chants — loud yelling from teammates in the stands to those competing and even encouragement across several courts between teammates in the throes of competition. These sounds aren’t just to present a clichéd sense of team spirit. They’re imperative to the team’s success.
“We just play, I feel, with better energy than anybody,” said Michigan coach Adam Steinberg. “And, in a six game set in doubles, that’s what gives us an advantage every time we walk on the court.”
That energy came in handy on Friday during the Wolverines’ matchup against Cornell. After starting the dual meet down 2-0 in two of the three one-set doubles matches, Michigan needed every ounce of energy to come back.
The doubles pair of junior Connor Johnston and sophomore Harrison Brown were the first to do so, winning four straight games and later claiming the set, 6-3. Sophomore Mattias Siimar and freshman Andrew Fenty started their doubles set up, 2-0, but lost the next three. They also had to come back to win the set, 6-4, securing the doubles team point for the Wolverines.
“I think that for us, we may not be the greatest doubles players, but we play with better intensity than anyone in that sixth game. And we believe that,” Steinberg said. “No matter what the score, like you said down two zero, we’re still gonna bring it.”
The team’s intensity would play a critical role later in the singles portion of the meet as well. Mattias Siimar had to feed off the noise again to come back in both sets of his straight-set victory. Playing Big Red’s Alafia Ayeni, who Steinberg described as one of the best players in the country, Siimar gained his first experience in the first singles spot.
It was a rude introduction for Siimar, as he found himself down 4-2 after having his serve broken in the first set. The team energy that Steinberg takes so much pride in was a major factor in Siimar's — and his team’s — ability to fight back.
“I think it’s like one of our fundamentals,” Siimar said. “I think it brings the best out of us and also like if you don’t feel good, or you’re rusty, then like support of your teammates helps you get free, I feel. And, I mean, it’s so much fun to play also with good energy.”
Siimar stuck with his game plan of attacking Ayeni’s forehand and came back to win the first set, 6-4. He would drop the first game of the following set, but won six straight games to win that set, 6-1. Siimar had one of the three singles victories that won the dual for Michigan.
It’s not a coincidence or accident that the Wolverines always has a strong team energy to rely on. According to Steinberg, it’s something they spend a lot of time focusing on.
“What you see in these matches is what you would see at our practices, there’s no difference,” Steinberg said. “(I’ve) believed for the last thirty years that we’re gonna play for something bigger than ourselves. Tennis is an individual sport, but we’re always playing for Michigan, we’re playing for each other, and we have to live that. We really practice it, it’s not just talk.”
As Michigan’s season continues, their comeback spirit is only growing. After defeating Cornell on Friday afternoon, they fell behind early against No. 18 Oklahoma the following day. Despite losing the doubles point and winning the first set in only two of the six singles matches that day, Michigan would come back as a team to defeat the Sooners. To some who enter the Varsity Tennis Center, it’s just loud noises. But don’t tell that to Steinberg.
“We actually really have to (be) inspiring and supporting and playing together,” Steinberg said. “From five years ago when I got here, it’s a different world from where we are now. I believe 100 percent it’s the reason we’re having success.”