Home sweet home has long been the mantra of Michigan men’s tennis.
Thanks to the energetic environment the Wolverines generate in Ann Arbor, they’ve won 30 home games in a row to date, and have only accrued a negative home record once in the last twenty years. Thus, virtually all of their losses over the past two seasons have occured on the road.
And faced with a chance to prove itself outside of the Varsity Tennis Center, No. 4 Michigan (9-0 overall) took it, sweeping North Carolina State (4-4), 4-0, in front of a rowdy Raleigh crowd.
“(The environment) was tough,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “The crowd’s against us, everything’s against us. … But it’s important to get out of your comfort zone. I think it toughens up our team in every way and brings us closer together when we travel for sure.”
Toughness on both sides of the court was evident early and often in doubles, especially with No. 3 duo junior Jacob Bickersteth and sophomore Will Cooksey. While the pair of fifth-year Patrick Maloney and senior Ondrej Styler broke early en route to a 6-4 win, Bickersteth and Cooksey struggled to find a similar break, trading holds of serve to 5-5.
With a final chance to break in order to avoid a deciding set-tiebreak, Bickersteth and Cooksey battled to deuce, and let a ball sail long by mere inches, breaking serve to 6-5. A vigorous overhead slam from Bickersteth won the set 7-5, earning the Wolverines the doubles point and putting them up 1-0 on the day.
“We’ve had a specific focus (in practice) of coming in more, of attacking, of serving and volleying more,” Steinberg said. “I thought Jacob and Will played a really great match. They were clutch in big moments. They came in more than I’ve ever seen them to the net, and I thought they were a big reason why we won the doubles point.”
Immediately into singles, however, it became clear the Wolfpack wasn’t going down without a fight. Michigan would have to replicate its doubles aggression to seal a victory.
The Wolverines managed to win most of the four hard-fought first sets at their top three singles positions, with fifth-year Andrew Fenty, Styler and Maloney all taking their opening sets.
NC State dug in even harder as the match progressed, especially at No. 3 singles. Maloney traded holds with his opponent up to a second set tiebreaker, giving his team its first glance of a possible 2-0 lead.
“(Maloney) is a fierce competitor,” Steinberg said. “He hates to lose, I think, more than he wants to win in a lot of ways. … He’s got an edge to him that helps a lot, and we just need a guy like that in our lineup.”
Maloney’s edge proved to be just enough, as he saved a crucial set point before rocketing a forehand down the line to win his match, 6-4, 7-6 (6), and notch Michigan’s first singles point.
While Maloney’s intensity carried him through his tiebreak, Styler played just as hard to avoid a tiebreak of his own.
Knotted at 5-5, Styler gracefully placed a drop shot, following it up with a decisive volley to break. Now just one game away from victory, Styler fired off an ace down the ‘T,’ winning just minutes after Maloney and extending the overall score to 3-0.
With one more point left to guarantee victory for the Wolverines, they looked to sophomore Gavin Young. Despite dropping his first set, he quickly mounted a comeback. After raising his level to take the second set 6-2, Young found himself up 5-2 in the final set.
Slamming a serve, Young scrambled to the net, unleashing a high-speed forehand winner to complete the 4-0 sweep of the Wolfpack.
“The philosophy of our program is that we play together, we play for each other, we push each other, especially when things aren’t going well,” Steinberg said. “We’re playing with these facilities that aren’t always perfect. That’s the way it is with tennis. You play different speeds of courts. The lights aren’t the same, and you have to adapt. And I think it makes you tougher.”
With one more home game before a six week streak of road games, Michigan will need the grit it displayed against NC State down the stretch.
And if the Wolverines can continue to adapt to unfamiliar territory, they can prove their energy is less of a lifeline and more of an asset to success.