Senior Andrew Fenty’s tossed racquet and open arms represented more than anyone could imagine.
It meant more than a celebration; it meant the Michigan men’s tennis team had turned a page on an underwhelming ending to its last season.
In the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, Fenty battled into a third set against Arizona’s Gustaf Strom. But, Strom took an early 3-1 lead and never looked back, clinching the match and knocking Michigan out of championship contention.
This year, the Wolverines nearly met that same fate, but Fenty made sure that didn’t happen. While playing next to junior Ondrej Styler, he rewrote last season’s narrative.
In response to a 4-1 third set deficit, Fenty used a combination of aces and perfectly placed returns to win five consecutive games and clinch Michigan’s victory over Texas.
Looking to make its first NCAA Tournament Quarterfinals appearance in 34 years, No. 5 seed Michigan (25-3 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) did exactly that, overcoming No. 12 Texas (18-11) in a tightly contested match.
“We thought Styler was going to win,” Fenty said. “And, the next thing you know, it’s completely flipped. … It doesn’t matter who won; we just kept going and going.”
In the truest sense, Fenty’s comeback displays what the Wolverines have built towards: the peak version of themselves.
“We’re heading into the part of the season where a lot of guys will peak with their (performances),” Michigan coach Ben Becker said on Apr. 15. “We want to be there in a few weeks.”
And, the Wolverines showed they have done just that, with each remaining match presenting itself to be the team’s season finale.
Beginning with doubles, senior Patrick Maloney and graduate student Nick Beaty were the first duo to earn breakpoint, and they didn’t relent from there. Their 6-1 victory over Texas’s doubles pair of Cleeve Harper and Richard Ciamarra — who are ranked No. 4 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association — seemed to give Michigan confidence in its success.
“Getting an early break is always a huge confidence booster for (me and Beaty),” Maloney said. “And, if we play a ranked duo, we always get a little fired up … , for the results and record we have, we take (being unranked) personally.”
The Wolverines’ confidence was amplified by the success from the other doubles courts.
Before sophomore Jacob Bickersteth delivered an ace to capture a 5-2 lead at No. 3 doubles, sophomore Nino Ehrenschneider remained unfazed as both of his No. 1 doubles opponents attacked the net, placing a return just within the back boundary to give him and Fenty a 4-1 lead.
But shortly after, Texas showed the abilities that got it to this point.
The Longhorns kickstarted their comebacks — which resulted in a 5-4 lead at No. 1 doubles and a 5-5 tie at No. 3 doubles — with an ace at No. 3 to deny Michigan its first doubles point clinching opportunity. But, with Beaty and Maloney’s victory to fall back on, Bickersteth and Styler won a tiebreaker 7-5 to halt Texas’s resurgence.
“I was really proud of the character these guys showed,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said. “We really blew some big leads, and, since we knew they had such a good team in singles, we knew we needed the doubles point.”
The Wolverines split their first sets in singles with Texas. Ehrenschneider emerged victorious in the longest-lasting first set across all courts, winning a tiebreaker 7-5.
“I came out playing a bit too flat,” Ehrenschneider said. “I had to switch my mindset by … (preparing) my points a bit more than usual because his shots passed me well throughout the match.
Bickersteth on the other hand struggled to bounce back, giving the Longhorns their first point in a straight sets loss, 6-1 and 6-4.
Maloney quickly regained Michigan’s first lead though, serving an ace to win 6-3 and 6-3.
“Since (Bickersteth) was struggling a little bit and Beaty had a close match, I tried to give to them a little more to get them going,” Maloney said. “It’s always nice to have a match that’s going well.”
And, Ehrenschneider’s second set tiebreaker victory, 7-4, made way for Fenty’s rather consequential comeback.
“It doesn’t matter what the score is … these guys find a way,” Steinberg said. “They’ve found a way all year, and they’re still going.”
And after their performance on Saturday, the Wolverines will look to continue their deep run.