Hands on his hips, fifth-year senior Andrew Fenty shook his head in disappointment as he trudged towards the net.
Once again, he was called upon to clinch a consequential match for the No. 4 Michigan men’s tennis team
And, unlike his third set heroics that sent the Wolverines to the 2022 NCAA Team Championship, his attempt at a third set comeback was halted by Texas No. 1 singles Eliot Spizziri.
In a rematch of last year’s NCAA Super Regional, Michigan (12-1 overall) was stopped short of the finals of the ITA National Team Indoor Championship by No. 7 Texas (10-1), 4-3, in a back-and-forth battle following consecutive wins over No. 17 Stanford and No. 5 Virginia.
“It was a tough loss,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “To get behind after doubles is tough against a top-10 team. We did everything we could to fight back.”
The doubles point weighed heavily on the result at the No. 3 doubles court, where junior Nino Ehrenschneider and sophomore Will Cooksey traded service games with their Longhorn opponents into a tiebreaker. In the tiebreaker, Texas was first to break — on consecutive double faults from Cooksey — that put the Wolverines in an early deficit, 4-1, that left the duo unable to recover.
Ehrenschneider, coming off a high-grade stress reaction in his right ankle, was thrust in the midst of Michigan’s midseason championship run — playing his second match since the Battle in the Bay Classic in September.
“I just tried to come in to help and contribute,” Ehrenschneider said. “I thought I would be much tighter and nervous but as soon as the match (against Stanford) started, everything just felt natural to me.”
And, in a 1-0 hole, the Wolverines needed to reconcile their nerves if they wanted to recover from losing the doubles point — just like they did in their opening round comeback over Stanford.
Their nerves seemed settled early.
Both Fenty and senior Ondrej Styler took control quickly — with Fenty getting to his forehand before Spizziri could to finish his first set, 6-1, and Styler closing after, 6-2.
Energized by their teammates’ fiery starts, Cooksey and junior Gavin Young took on large leads of their own, 5-3 and 5-2, respectively. Meanwhile, as junior Jacob Bickersteth struggled against his Longhorn opponent, fifth-year senior Patrick Maloney traded games at the No. 2 singles court.
But just as momentum swung to Michigan’s side, it fizzled.
Young’s wide lead dissipated in five consecutive game losses, and with that he went down one set, 7-5.
Across the board, the Wolverines had the opportunity to sweep their first sets in singles — holding a break lead on each court. But that opportunity faded down the stretch of its first sets.
“We did exactly what we needed to do (to start singles), grabbing the momentum back,” Steinberg said. “But, we didn’t close the sets like the way we’ve done all year (by playing braver on the deuce points), and it really changed the complexion of the match.”
With Michigan winning four of six first sets, Styler looked to serve as the trailblazer for his teammates by translating his dominance into a second set. His 6-2 and 6-1 win gave the Wolverines every bit of the confidence they could to carve a path to victory.
Even though Cooksey’s 7-6 (3) and 6-1 win pushed Michigan to a lead over Texas, 2-1, both Young and Bickersteth neared losses in straight sets. Before either of their Longhorn opponents closed their matches, Maloney delivered the Wolverines a 3-1 lead on a game-winning unforced error from his opponent.
Texas, however, made good on its two first set wins, finishing both courts in straight sets and giving the keys to Spizziri — the first-ranked singles player in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association — to close the match.
It was a match of “almosts” for Michigan, but it still left the grueling match with a positive outlook.
“One of our goals was to win the Indoor National Championship,” Ehrenschneider said. “But, we were told to feel proud of ourselves and think positively because great teams respond well to tough losses.”
And, if the Wolverines are able to respond to their latest test, they can not only reassert their own dominance but also use this experience to prime themselves for NCAA Team Championship contention.