In a year of letdown seasons, surprise comeback losses and broken hearts, Michigan sports are in an unusual position.
The women’s tennis team is having a different type of year as well — except it’s breaking records instead of hearts.
The Wolverines are currently ranked No. 3 in the nation, the highest ranking in program history. Prior to this year, the highest rank the team had ever held was 16. The Wolverines (5-0 Big Ten, 15-3 overall) haven’t had a conference start this strong since 1997, when the team went undefeated through 10 matches in Big Ten play.
With the way the team is playing, the Wolverines are heading in the direction of repeating the program’s 1996-1997 season, when Michigan took first place in the Big Ten and made it to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We have a group that really gets along well,” Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein said. “They believe in each other and push each other and work really hard. We feel like we could play with anybody.”
Michigan first made history when it earned a berth to the ITA National Team Indoor Championships last February, a tournament hosted in Madison for 16 of the country’s top teams. It was the first time in school history Michigan had ever been invited, and it was a successful jump-off point for what’s been a thriving spring season so far.
“I think we were able to see a lot of the top teams in the nation (at the indoor championships),” senior Tania Mahtani said. “We saw in the tournament that we were right at their level, which was a great motivator for the rest of our season.”
Over the past two months, the Wolverines have broken several other program records. The team had its first win over a top-10 team back on Feb. 13 against then-No. 6 Miami. Michigan then set another record by defeating its first top-five rival on Feb. 26, beating then-No. 5 Baylor.
After five consecutive road games and seven consecutive wins, the women’s tennis team faced its biggest obstacle yet last weekend — then-No. 4 Northwestern.
Northwestern — which finished No. 1 in 2008 and No. 2 in 2009 — had 81 consecutive wins over Big Ten opponents coming into the match against Michigan last Saturday, while the Wolverines were just breaking into the top 10 for the first time ever. It was also the only Big Ten team Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein hadn’t beaten since she started coaching at Michigan in 2007.
If history repeated itself, the Wildcats would earn win number 82.
But, Michigan made program history once again — one-upping a previous success for another time this season — defeating Northwestern for the first time since 1997. This was also Michigan’s first conference match in which both teams were ranked in the top 10.
Junior team captain Whitney Taney has proved herself a leader of the team, stepping up in several matches this season. However, she attributes their success to the bond the players share.
“We all believe in each other on every single court,” Taney said. “We believe as a team that we can do it and that we can get the job done.”
Looking ahead, the Wolverines have a few more firsts on the horizon. They have never hosted the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament, but if they stay on track, that could happen this year as well.
The ultimate first for the women’s tennis team, however, would be the program’s first national championship.
“Winning a national championship would be the top goal,” Bernstein said. “But we’re just going to continue one match at a time and hopefully end up with some more firsts.”