Last October, the Michigan men’s tennis team traveled to Illinois for the ITA Midwest Regional Championships but returned to Ann Arbor a few days later, before the tournament had ended.
The early departure wasn’t due to poor results — rather, then-fifth year Andrew Fenty and then-junior Gavin Young had both battled their way into the final, and the two figured an all-Wolverine match-up would be most fitting at the Varsity Tennis Center.
During this year’s Midwest Regional, Michigan didn’t go home early. But unlike last October, that wasn’t due to positive results. While the tournament was hosted in Ann Arbor, not one Wolverine made it past the round of 16.
From Michigan assistant coach Trevor Foshey’s perspective, the tournament had its benefits despite a myriad of early losses.
“It’s good to get a tournament where we’re all home, first of all,” Foshey said. “And then everyone playing matches, you know, (head coach) Sean (Maymi) and I being new, we’re still getting to know the guys. We’ve got (volunteer assistant) Max (Stewart), which helps a ton, but it’s really good for us to get matches in, because a lot of these guys haven’t been able to even play yet.”
While most Wolverines made it past the first round, only senior Jacob Bickersteth made it to the third round. After picking up straightforward wins in the first two rounds, he was up against Jack Anthrop, the Ohio State sophomore who toppled Bickersteth in three sets last season to clinch the Buckeyes’ second win against Michigan.
In the rematch, the first set went by in a flash, as Anthrop dominated with a whippy forehand, a penetrating backhand and a knack to not miss. During most points, it seemed that Bickersteth was playing to stay in the point, and Anthrop was playing to win it.
“We were battling, (but) not trusting our base game to be good enough,” Foshey said. “Then we tried to start over-playing and we respected our opponent too much. It took too long until we started (to play) like, ‘Alright, we’re just gonna make balls.”
Staying consistent, even after dropping four games to start the second set, proved key for Bickersteth. Pounding deep, heavy groundstrokes and not shying away from rushing the net to put away volleys, Bickersteth turned the momentum in his favor and gave himself a chance.
Down 5-3 — one lost game away from his tournament being over — Bickersteth stuck to his brand: thumping deep balls and swiftly slicing volleys to hold serve. After a missed backhand passing shot, Bickersteth locked in. Winning eight points in a row, he took his first lead of the match to go up 5-5, 30-0.
But leads — especially minor ones — are fleeting, and Bickersteth learned that quickly, sailing a backhand long and subsequently double faulting. It was deuce, and a tense silence fell upon Bickersteth and Anthrop, their respective coaches and everyone watching in the stands.
Nerves spoke through the silence as the point drew on, with Bickersteth softly bunting a volley instead of putting it away, and Anthrop lobbing a passing shot instead of hammering it down the line. Both players continued to paint the lines, until Anthrop lapsed and sent a backhand into the net.
Now up 6-5, Bickersteth had his first major lead of the match, but Anthrop wasn’t going to go away easily. Serving two aces in a row to send the match to a tiebreaker, the momentum swung back to Anthrop’s side and stayed there as he won the match, 6-1, 7-6 (1).
“Once you get a lead, it’s like, ‘Oh, let me just hang on to it.’ You get more defensive, passive,” Foshey said. “It’s one of those sayings … good players will come up with good shots and (Anthrop) did in the (tiebreaker).”
Losing the tiebreaker and the match, Bickersteth’s comeback was stifled and the Wolverines’ last tournament chance was snuffed out. Yet, Foshey left motivated and with a lesson.
“It’s gonna teach us that we gotta get hungrier,” Foshey said. “So for us as coaches to be able to like, ‘Alright, this is what we need to start dialing in.’ Because our standard here in Michigan is as high as it gets, we’re a team that should be competing for national championships and we don’t feel like we’re quite there yet.”
Luckily for Michigan, it has time. With just under three months until the regular season kicks off, the Wolverines have ample opportunity to dial it in.
Because if they want any success when wins and losses start to matter, they’ll need to leave matches and tournaments with more than just motivation and lessons.