Following on his serve, graduate student Nick Beaty rushed forward, volleyed the ball toward a Buckeye deep in his backcourt and screamed in bliss as his opponent failed to deliver a return shot over the net. His victory gave the No. 7 Michigan men’s tennis team a 3-1 lead and spelled a likely defeat for No. 4 Ohio State.
Then junior Ondrej Styler finished the job. After winning his tightly contested second set tiebreaker, he displayed Michigan’s astounding versatility by sustaining a seven-shot rally to win — not just his third set, but the Big Ten Championship.
Michigan (22-3 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) overcame a flurry of conference opponents — the last being Ohio State (24-3, 7-0) in a 4-2 victory — en route to retaining its first Big Ten Championship since 1996. It’s a victory that has been on the Wolverines’ mind for a while.
“The ultimate goal would be to do well at the Big Ten Tournament,” freshman Patorn Hanchaikul said on Apr. 19. “Hopefully to win it.”
Goal accomplished, but that seemed fleeting during Michigan’s opening tournament match.
Two Wolverines faltered in their second sets, as senior Patrick Maloney lost his final game in straight points and sophomore Nino Ehrenschneider dropped his set, 6-1 — even after five of six Michigan players won their first sets.
“We were scoreboard watching too much and waiting for other guys to finish,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “We lost that sense of urgency we had all year.”
Even then, senior Andrew Fenty maintained a heavy forehand to emerge victorious over Indiana’s Luka Vukovic, 6-2 and 6-1, while sophomore Jacob Bickersteth capped a two-set victory by winning his final service game in straight points, 6-3 and 6-2. Together, they gave the Wolverines a 3-0 lead, but Michigan was forced to dip in a few third sets in search of a clinching fourth point.
After Maloney and Beaty lost to their Hoosier opponents, Styler won his third set, 6-3, and tacked on the final point to Michigan’s 4-2 victory over Indiana.
“First rounds are always tough in tennis,” Steinberg said. “(The match) showed us that, when it’s win or go home, we really have to focus, and I don’t think we were (against Indiana).”
Carrying these mistakes into the next round of the tournament, the Wolverines completed back-to-back match points in doubles in convincing fashion, including an ace by Maloney and Beaty. And while the matches only offered Michigan one point, it kickstarted their smooth 4-0 win over Illinois.
That confidence extended to the singles matches as well.
Even as Maloney fell behind in his first set, 3-1, he raced back with attacks at the net and finished his first set in a win, 7-5. A few courts away, Beaty also won his first set, 6-4. Both were one game away from winning their matches in straight sets, as they were called off due to Michigan clinching a victory.
Leading the Wolverines’ explosion, Ehrenschneider jumped out to 4-0 first set leads against Indiana and Illinois.
“I had a great start and my opponent was low on energy, and I kind of exploited that,” Ehrenschneider said. “It showed the team I was ready to compete.”
Before Ehrenschneider’s win, Bickersteth triumphed in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3, opening the door for Styler to orchestrate a smooth move to the net on match point and clinch Michigan’s appearance in the Big Ten Tournament Final.
The Wolverines’ focus and composure was unruffled as the Buckeyes grabbed the doubles point. Beaty was broken twice in a loss at No. 2 doubles, while Fenty and Ehrenschneider — who had not been paired together since an April 17 win over Penn State — cruised past Ohio State’s Matej Vocel and Robert Cash, a duo ranked No. 1 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
With only one of their 21 other wins this season occurring through a loss of the doubles point, Steinberg knew the Wolverines were not fazed.
“I looked in their eyes in between (doubles and singles matches), and I saw a team that was ready to battle,” Steinberg said.
Before Beaty and Styler delivered Michigan’s third and fourth points, Ehrenschneider finished his first set with an ace and smashed a ball at the net to clinch a point. Shortly thereafter, Maloney appropriately placed an unreturnable ball on match point to defeat No. 11 Vocel after a tiebreaker.
“Fate rewards the brave,” Beaty said. “You want to take chances in big moments, and, usually, it pays off.”
And, on Sunday, fate rewarded the Wolverines with the Big Ten Championship.