By Alex Steinhoff, Daily Sports Writer
Published September 21, 2011
It’s been six years since a Michigan men’s tennis team has been void of seniors. The 2005 team ended its season ranked No. 39 and was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by No. 25 Arkansas.
This year, the Wolverines start the season just like they did in 2005. But with junior Evan King ranked No. 8 in the nation and four other contributors in last year's lineup returning as sophomores, expectations are higher than a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.
As the team's No. 1 singles player, King will lead the Wolverines. King started last season unranked, but ended the year ranked No. 17 with 30 wins, bowing out in the Sweet 16 and ended earning All-American status.
King was the first Michigan player to earn All-American singles status in 19 years and had the most singles wins of any Wolverine since 1998.
This season, King is ranked below three Big Ten foes.
In doubles, King was also a force and won matches with three different partners. Of his three different partners from last season, sophomores Shaun Bernstein and Alex Buzzi are returning. This season, King and Bernstein are expected to play doubles together and are seeded No. 33.
Bernstein not only had opportunities to play No. 1 and No. 2 doubles throughout last season, he also solidified a spot at No. 3 singles for most of the season and was a key everyday contributor.
In several matches last year, Bernstein found himself in tough third sets, and at the beginning of the season, Bernstein was losing the decisive set. But as the year progressed and Bernstein found himself in third sets more often, he began to turn the tables on his opponent and win the elusive third sets.
“Last year, the freshmen came through themselves, especially Shaun, Justin (Rossi), and Barrett (Franks),” Berque said. “They came through the initial uncertainty of how to fit into a team and where they are going to fit in the lineup.”
For Michigan to be successful, Bernstein will have to set an example for the incoming freshmen about how to condition, what kind of attitude to have on the court, and even how to manage study time and diets.
“We will be happy if we have more than a few leaders, but I think some of those things will sort themselves out,” Berque said. “I think a lot of our guys, like Bernstein and Rossi and King, will give us some leadership on the team and I think we have a pretty mature group considering how young we are.”
Michigan also welcomes three freshmen to its roster for the 2011 season—Eli Brown, Alex Petrone, and Michael Zhu. Brown was ranked in the top five of his junior class in Canada.
Michigan coach Bruce Berque said Brown is highly motivated to improve, transition to college tennis in the United States, and find a spot in the lineup by the time scoring events start in January.
Petrone, a blue-chip recruit from New York, possesses natural shot-making skills from the baseline that will make him competitive in Michigan’s lineup almost immediately. Zhu also brings excellent baseline skills to the Wolverines. As someone who aspires to play professional tennis, Berque mentioned that Zhu knows he has a lot of work to do to reach his ultimate goal.
“We are going to have to have at least one freshman in singles and doubles lineups,” Berque said. “For us to be strong, these freshmen are going to have to be quick studies and get in the lineup right away and improve a lot between now and then.”
Because the Wolverines have just five returning players, at least one of the incoming freshmen will have to do more than make appearances in the lineup.
“I definitely think it’s likely that these guys will crack the top five (in the lineup),” Berque said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are pretty even on our team. Evan has obviously established himself as our top player, but after that there isn’t a whole lot that would surprise me.”
Entering last season, Michigan’s roster of nine consisted of three freshmen. So, it wasn't necessary for freshmen to play in every match. But this year, the Wolverines only have eight players on the roster, opening a spot for at least one freshman to play in every match.
The Wolverines start their fall season this weekend, with an appearance in the Harvard Chowder Fall Classic. The tournament field includes defending champion USC and highly touted Texas A&M.