Courtesy of Manuela Davies

ORLANDO, FLA — Having already booked its ticket to Sunday’s team final against Alabama, Saturday’s competition saw Michigan earn its place in two of three individual finals. 

The day began with Chris Kelley’s Tier 1 matchup against Alabama’s Jeremy Boyd, the tournament’s sixth-highest ranked player. Boyd, a much bigger player than Kelley, packed a powerful serve which threatened to jeopardize Kelley’s hopes of advancing to the Tier 1 semifinals. 

Kelley’s quality would prevail, however. Kelley came out swinging, taking the first set 6-1 off the back of an impressive display of controlled, accurate returning. Boyd managed to grow into the game in the second set thanks to a stretch of overhit returns from Kelley, at one point prompting Kelley to examine his racket with a puzzled look. 

Quickly, though, Kelley regained control of the match, putting Boyd away by pinning him deep in the backcourt. The match finished 6-4, 6-1.

Looking to get his first win in Tier 2, Michigan’s Matthew Fritzie lined up against Clemson’s Jeff Townsend, a veteran of the competitive wheelchair tennis scene. 

Fritzie is a player who flourishes in games played at a slower pace, as they allow him to position himself to utilize his accurate lobbed return. Townsend, a clever player, attacked that style by constantly varying his shot technique and placement, ensuring that Fritzie could never set himself, and, as a result, Fritzie never truly worked himself into the game. Townsend would go on to win, taking it 6-1, 6-0. 

After a near-perfect first two days, Dr. Feranmi Okanlami sought to ride his momentum in his Tier 3 semifinal matchup against Auburn’s Jack Pierre. 

Quickly, each players’ strengths and weaknesses became apparent. Okanlami, a very consistent long-range returner, performed best when the game was played in the backcourt, as it was early on. As a result, Okanlami raced out to a 6-1 first set victory. In the second set, the play drew closer to the net, and Pierre’s superior reach and reaction time paid dividends, taking the second set to a seven point tiebreaker. 

For many players, letting a significant lead slip would spell trouble for their confidence. For Okanlami, however, the pressure of the tiebreaker fed his belief. Despite Pierre’s growing aggression, Okanlami put the match to rest with some impressive forehand returns, winning 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) and advancing to Sunday’s Tier 3 final.

Looking to join his teammate in the Tier 3 final was Michigan’s Alex Saleh, who took on Arizona’s Owen Anketell in the semifinal. 

Anketell, the top-ranked player in Tier 3, clearly employed a very strategic approach to the match. By placing a lot of backspin on the ball, Anketell forced Saleh to have to chase balls at the net, exerting a lot of energy. Saleh showed immense determination, making a number of improbable returns, but at a cost.

“Tiredness definitely took a toll in this game,” Saleh said. “When he went to my backhand, I would try to go straight down the line so I could make him have to push really hard and work for it, but it was tough.”

Saleh once again showed his grit by battling back to win the second set, forcing the match into a 10-point tiebreaker. Ultimately, however, a sloppy few minutes cost him the tiebreaker and the match, 3-6, 6-4, 4-10. 

Despite the disappointment of losing the semifinal, Saleh secured third place in Tier 3 by emerging victorious in his match against Pierre in the third-place match. 

“I’m not the most satisfied,” Saleh said. “I really wanted to play against Dr. (Okanlami). I thought overall, though, part of me feels satisfied because I thought I played really well, considering I’ve never competed in a legitimate competition like this one.” 

In a moment which illustrated Saleh’s joyous competitive nature, a lunge to meet a sliced return from Pierre caused Saleh’s chair to tip over. After a moment of concerned silence, Saleh beamed as Pierre’s return skewed wide. The crowd cheered as Saleh returned upright, beaming all the while. 

In the Tier 1 semifinal, Kelley lined up against Arizona’s Jason Keatseangsilp, who, despite being the lower seed, easily dispatched Alabama’s Thomas Venos on Saturday. 

The two played a competitive game of tennis. Kelley and Keatseangsilp exchanged a number of mesmerizing volleys, each return more impressive than the last. But for Kelley, unforced errors caught up with him and Keatseangsilp began to pull ahead. In a match with hotly contested games, Keatseangsilp’s ability to find his targets earlier than Kelley proved crucial, allowing him to coast to a 6-0, 6-1 victory. Kelley’s aspirations of an individual title would have to wait another year.

Aiming to extend his unbeaten tournament debut was Spencer Heslop, who faced Michelle Wilson of Arizona in the Tier 2 semifinal. 

As has been the case for the majority of Heslop’s performances so far this tournament, the match began uncertainly. Heslop’s serve was inconsistent and his returns erratic as Wilson raced out to a 3-0 first set lead. 

Wilson’s dominance was short-lived, however. As the encouragement from the Michigan fans grew louder, Heslop’s confidence grew with them. He began to showcase his elite speed, zipping around the court to make improbable returns look simple. After Heslop took the first set in a tiebreaker, the complexion of the match was almost unrecognizable from its beginnings — Wilson looked hesitant and nervous, shaking her head as Heslop hit yet another unreturnable shot on his way to winning 7-6 (7-4), 6-1. 

Despite winning both the team and Tier 2 semifinals, Saturday was the end of the road for Heslop. In observance of the Sabbath, Heslop will sit out Sunday’s matches. As a result, in his competitive wheelchair tennis debut, Heslop leaves with an undefeated record, finishing as the de facto Tier 2 runner-up. 

In Heslop’s absence, sophomore Caiden Baxter will partner Kelley in Sunday’s team final against wheelchair tennis heavyweight and No. 1 Alabama. 

“If (Baxter) is able to reach his potential and be a solid, consistent player, he can compete at (Heslop’s) level,” Michigan coach Johan Latorre said. “(If we win), it would be amazing. It would tell you that there’s a new powerhouse in town.”