After struggling to control her emotions on the tennis court during the season, Michigan freshman Sam Critser has been working to improve her mental game this summer.

There was no better situation to display her newfound mental toughness than in the California Open Tennis Tournament final, where she overcame early and late deficits to take home the title with a 0-6, 6-0, 7-5 win over Jelena Pandzic.

“I’ve been working on not letting things bother me as much,” Critser said. “I definitely knew I could play better than I did in the first set so I knew I could come back. It’s definitely a confidence booster. It always feels good when you beat a good player, especially when you do it to win a tournament.”

After breezing through the tournament to reach the finals without losing a set, No. 4 seed Critser struggled early against the hard-hitting Pandzic. Unable to find a rhythm, Critser played passively as the No. 1 seed dictated play with powerful groundstrokes to take the first set without losing a game.

“She’s a really good player, so I had to get used to her style of play,” Critser said. “She hits a little harder than a lot of the players that I’m used to so it took me awhile to get used to that. I don’t think I’ve ever lost a first set 6-0 so I just had to step my game up and be more aggressive.”

Frustrated with her play, Critser started the second set with a renewed focus. She changed her game plan, and from the very first point of the set she played much more assertively.

With a more dynamic plan of attack, Critser was aggressive moving forward, showcasing a strong net game. Critser’s strong play seemed to surprised the No. 314 ranked player, who clearly appeared frustrated over her lack of control over the points. The momentum seemed to be with Critser, who won all six games of the second set, as they entered the final set.

But just as Critser stepped up her play at the beginning of the second set, Pandzic did the same following her uninspired play. The two battled evenly to start the third set, but Critser found herself down 3-5, facing match point.

Leaning on her experiences this past year at Michigan, Critser calmly won the point and the next four games to take the set and the match.

After losing in the finals last year, Critser was determined not to have the same disappointing experience this year.

“When I was down match point, I just tried to tell myself that it was just like any other point,” Critser said. “Playing so many matches at Michigan, you’re put in so many pressure situations and tough situations where you have to come through for the team, so I was used to the situation.”

Though she played superbly en route to taking the title, Critser knows she has a lot to improve on and is happy to get back to training for her upcoming sophomore year.

“I just really want to come back this year and do the best that I can for the Michigan team,” Critser said. “I want to do as much as I can to help us go even farther in the (NCAA Tournament) than we’ve gotten in the past few years.”

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