The No. 4 Michigan men’s tennis team faced its biggest rival, No. 3 Ohio State, this Sunday, and the tension at the Varsity Tennis Center was palpable. The Wolverines had lost the doubles point for the third week in a row, and five out of six singles matches had dropped the first set. Fans in both blue and red swarmed the bleachers and the lawn opposite the courts, looking ready to rehash the Toledo War at any second.
On the courts, fifth-year Andrew Fenty was ready to battle. After starting the first set strong by winning the first game in straight points, he quickly lost his momentum, allowing his opponent Justin Boulais to win the first set 6-3. Fenty looked off balance and had trouble controlling the ball, turning usual winners into misfires.
“He came to play,” Fenty said about Boulais. “I think he kinda caught me off guard.”
Having faced Boulais just three weeks prior, and winning in a much easier three-set match, Fenty had an idea of what to expect from his opponent. In proving him wrong, Boulais provided Fenty the energy that he had been looking for all set long.
“I just feel like if you’re gonna beat me, you’re gonna have to earn it,” Fenty said. “The match isn’t over until we shake hands and it’s my job to make it as hard as possible.”
The second set started slow, with both Boulais and Fenty missing easy shots, but then the tide began to turn. Boulais had been pushing up to the net all game, and Fenty hadn’t been responding well. It seemed too hard to get the ball around Boulais, leading many balls wide. But tied at two games apiece in the second set, Fenty made an adjustment. Lofting the ball over Boulais’ head, Fenty forced him off the net, controlling the longer rallies that ensued. He went on to break Boulais’ serve and then held his own, leading 4-2.
Fenty continued his rampage after that, sending shots sailing into the backcourt when Boulais came to the net and running him off the baseline when the Buckeye dropped back. Stealing yet another game off of Boulais’ serve, Fenty looked poised to serve out the second set.
Boulais wasn’t willing to go away that easily, though, and capitalized on Fenty’s uncharacteristically poor placement to take the next two games. Fenty didn’t look as rattled as he had in the first set, however, and served up a few aces and a cross court winner to take the second set, 6-4.
At almost exactly the same moment, senior Ondrej Styler won a 17-point tiebreaker, giving Michigan a surge of life. Here was the opening it had been waiting for all match, the chance to take the reins in the latest edition of this age-old battle. Down 3-0, it would be a steep comeback, but Michigan looked reinvigorated.
The third set began with Fenty making yet another adjustment. Moving up to the net to take advantage of his height and wingspan, he broke Boulais yet again, and the crowd erupted. Boulais broke back, using Fenty’s own strategy against him and pushing him back toward the baseline. Going up 3-2 with multiple overhead slams at the net, Boulais looked to be in charge of the match, but Fenty was not to be discouraged.
“When I start to lose, I just make it harder for them,” Fenty said.
The Wolverines’ tireless commander simply reset and held serve, tying the set up at three games apiece. Boulais attempted to resort to his early strategy of aggressive net play, but Fenty held him off, hitting two aces in a row. He slammed the ball behind Boulais’ shoulder to take a 4-3 lead, as the Michigan fans in attendance roared their approval.
Fenty didn’t drop a game after that, coasting to a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Boulais. Accentuated by a few more aces, his comeback victory allowed the Wolverines to begin their collective resurgence. Styler picked up a second singles point for Michigan in straight sets, riding the momentum Fenty had built. It still wasn’t enough though, and the Wolverines fell to the Buckeyes, 4-2.
“I was really proud,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “They fought unbelievably to get back in the match. They wouldn’t quit.”
Just a week before, Fenty led the charge from behind as Michigan rallied to beat Louisville. The same happened against Penn State on Friday, just two days before the showdown with the Buckeyes. Although his effort alone wasn’t quite enough to beat Ohio State, it appears that Fenty plays better on the comeback, leaving very little room for his opponents to maneuver.
“If you’re gonna be up? Beat me,” Fenty challenged. “See how long you can win for. And this season? Not a lot of people can.”
Although Fenty may have won his individual skirmish, the Wolverines lost the war. Poor doubles performances and shot placement plagued them at every turn until they had to wave the white flag of surrender. If Michigan ever wants to rule the Toledo strip, and the university beneath it, it needs to have a more consistent attack formation, with help coming from all sides. With the biggest battle of the season, the Big Ten Tournament, still looming, the Wolverines still have another chance at victory. Down 2-0 to the Buckeyes, this is right where Fenty wants to be: on the cusp of a comeback, just like the one he pulled off on Sunday.