CHAMPAIGN — Without a moment’s hesitation, graduate student Nick Beaty took a return off serve and smashed a ball that took one bounce over the fence. His smooth move halted Ohio State’s fiery start by giving the Michigan men’s tennis team its first doubles win.
And although Beaty’s success carried over to junior Ondrej Styler at the No. 3 doubles court — who delivered a furious return off serve to clinch the doubles point for the Wolverines — that momentum didn’t extend into singles.
Splitting the season series in four total matches, Michigan (25-4 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) came up short against Ohio State (28-3, 7-0), 4-2, to suffer its first postseason loss and end its season in the NCAA Quarterfinals.
“I don’t think (Styler, senior Andrew Fenty and sophomore Nino Ehrenschneider) played to the level they’re capable of,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “I know they didn’t want to play that way … maybe, in some respects, the moment got too big for them.”
These players comprised one side of the courts, and each of them struggled to break away from their Buckeye opponents.
After Ohio State’s Cannon Kingsley grabbed the first break point at the No. 1 singles court, Styler recovered with a break in straight points, tying the first set at three games apiece. But that mid-set success did not translate to Fenty and Ehrenschneider. Even then, Styler could not sustain his high-energy backcourt play, and Ohio State earned three first-set victories over Styler (6-4), Fenty (6-2) and Ehrenschneider (6-2).
On the other side, sophomore Jacob Bickersteth looked to galvanize his teammates by jumping out to a 5-0 lead in his first set. Before his match was moved indoors due to inclement weather, Bickersteth dropped the ensuing three games, but he knew he could give the Wolverines their first first-set win.
“(The move inside) didn’t really affect too much,” Bickersteth said. “I was serving, so I knew I could come out on the winning side.”
On either side of Bickersteth stood senior Patrick Maloney and Beaty, but after holding for one service game, Maloney fell in a 6-1 first-set loss. Moments later, Beaty was unable to break on a crucial deciding point that contributed to his 7-6 (11-9) first-set loss.
“Beaty has been a role model for me for two years,” Bickersteth said. “He does everything right and is the heart of our team … that’s how you want to be as a college tennis player.”
Before Beaty and Maloney were the last Michigan players left standing, Fenty lost in consecutive sets to the Buckeyes’ JJ Tracy — ranked No. 19 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association — 6-2 and 6-2. Bickersteth broke the 1-1 tie by giving the Wolverines their only singles victory in the match, winning 6-3 and 6-3.
The Buckeyes, however, translated their first set success against Ehrenschneider and Styler by winning their second sets, 6-3 and 6-4, respectively. It brought them within one point of clinching an appearance in the NCAA Semifinals. With the season on the line, Beaty was unable to break Ohio State’s Andrew Lutschaunig, falling 6-4 in his second set.
“I didn’t want Beaty to be (our final losing player),” Steinberg said. “He’s made me a better person and coach … but, without Beaty, we’re not here — we’re not even close.”
To that point, Michigan will not allow its final loss this season to define it.
“They fight so hard for each other, and … I’m impressed with them everyday,” Steinberg said. “You don’t get this far without having a special group of guys with character and heart that love Michigan more than anything.”
Looking beyond their record-setting season and the singles troubles that ended it, the Wolverines will hope that dedication to each other will stick long into the future.