On Wednesday at the ITA Fall National Championships, the four Michigan tennis representatives – three singles players and one doubles team – won each of their respective first-round matches, and headed into day two feeling great. On Thursday, though, it became clear that the Championships were a tale of two days for the Wolverines.
Senior Gavin Young, junior Julia Fliegner, and senior Kari Miller competed in their respective singles draws. Miller played doubles too, alongside senior Jaedan Brown. With each flight having its own seeding and matchups, the Championships were a mixed bag of successes and failures across the four draws, despite each flight being eliminated in the same round.
On Wednesday, Young faced a familiar foe in the opening round of the men’s singles draw: Columbia’s Michael Zheng. Zheng, seeded fourth in the Championships, eliminated Young in the NCAA Singles Championships in May, leaving a sour taste in Young’s mouth.
“I always look forward to playing someone that I lost to last time,” Young said Friday. “It was a match that I was really pumped up to play.”
Young’s excitement was evident not only when he hyped himself up in between points or after big winners, but it also showed through his playing style. Young played aggressive, jumping at opportunities to charge the net often and inching closer on returns to pounce on Zheng’s second serves.
“I think taking time away from him and, you know, coming to net and taking the ball early really worked,” Young said. “I think, definitely, being the aggressor paid off.”
But the success wore off when Young fell to Ohio State’s Jack Anthrop on Thursday, ending his Championships run in the second round. A second set that saw the two trade blows up to 5-5 ended with Anthrop pulling away and winning the last two games, taking advantage of Young’s first serve inconsistencies and capitalizing on deuce points.
A similar outcome trickled through the rest of the singles players, including Fliegner. She found some success on Wednesday in the women’s singles draw with a first-round win over Stanford’s Connie Ma.
After a 2-2 start to the first set, Fliegner took over, winning four straight games to take the set 6-2. The second set didn’t look much different, with Fliegner winning four of the final five games en route to a 6-3 set win, and a straight-set match victory.
In the second round, Fliegner played North Carolina’s second-seeded Reese Brantmeier close the whole way. She lost the first set 6-4, and played to 5-5 in the second set before an error-ridden service game gave Brantmeier the break she needed to close out the match and end Fliegner’s tournament run.
“It was good for her to kind of get that good first-round win, and then push a very good player, and kind of showcase some pretty good tennis,” women’s associate head coach Teryn Ashley-Fitch said of Fliegner’s performance at the tournament.
On the other hand, Miller ⸺ seeded in the fifth-to-eighth group of the women’s singles draw ⸺ was probably aiming higher than the second round coming into the week.
After a convincing win over Princeton’s Neha Velaga, Miller fell to North Carolina’s Anika Yarlagadda in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6 (1). The tiebreak, dominated by Yarlagadda, came as a surprise after a neck-and-neck second set.
“I’m not sure she was stepping up as much as she usually does,” Ashley-Fitch said. “I think that her opponent was kind of more playing to win and she wasn’t, and that made the difference in the end.”
Conservative play proved the difference in Miller’s doubles match later that Thursday, too. The third-seeded Miller and Brown lost to Northwestern’s Christina Hand and Justine Leong 7-5, 6-1, after a match-deciding tiebreaker victory in the first round.
“That was a little bit of a disappointing match,” Ashley-Fitch said, citing failure to convert big points as part of the reason for the loss. “(On big points) are you willing to be aggressive and kind of put yourself on the line, or are you gonna wait for them to make a mistake?”
Across all four players and both teams, though, a major goal will be to learn from this tournament as they prepare for the spring season.
Whether it’s Miller and Fliegner testing their strength against a national power in UNC, or Young and the Miller-Brown pairing gaining experience against future Big Ten opponents, that sentiment remains the same.
“It’s nice to kind of see these players play and get to play them because it’s not gonna be the last time we’re gonna play Ohio State,” Young said about his loss to the Buckeyes’ Anthrop. “The goal is to try to beat (Ohio State) in the season when we’re playing a dual match … that’s kind of what matters most.”
The experience from these fall matches will have to translate into improvements when wins and losses start to matter in dual matches in January. Otherwise, like the ITA Championships, the teams’ seasons could be up and down.