The No. 26 Michigan women’s tennis team went on the road last night carrying a bullseye on their back.
The Wolverines’ opponent, Michigan State, was coming off two straight wins against ranked competition and was enjoying its highest ranking in a decade. The Spartans had home-court advantage and ample opportunity to notch another upset and snap their six-match losing streak against Michigan.
But what the Spartans got was a reality check.
The Wolverines (6-1 Big Ten, 13-4 overall) cruised to a 6-1 victory, winning four of their five singles matches in straight sets and leaving East Lansing with their winning streak, now at 11 meets, intact.
Entering last night, Michigan State was 12-1 when scoring the doubles point, and the Spartans knew that a hot start would be critical in slowing down a streaking Michigan team.
But freshman Denise Muresan and junior captain Lindsey Howard won easily (8-1) in the opening match at No. 3 doubles, and the blowout began. Junior Chisako Sugiyama and sophomore Tania Mahtani racked up their ninth consecutive victory in the ensuing match, securing the Wolverines’ 11th-consecutive doubles point and a lead Michigan never relinquished.
“It shows you how important the doubles are,” Michigan coach Ronnie Bernstein said. “Even though it’s just one point, it gives you a lot of momentum.”
Sugiyama continued her solid play. The 46th-ranked junior dominated her No. 1 singles match from start to finish, racing to a 6-1, 6-1 straight set victory. Sugiyama is the only Wolverine undefeated in Big Ten singles and doubles play.
Three freshmen continued to give the Spartans fits throughout the evening. Rika Tatsuno dispatched Ana Milosavljevic 6-2, 6-3 for her 11th straight win. After going down quietly, 3-6, in the first set at No. 2 singles, Whitney Taney battled back to a tiebreaker before suffering her first loss since Feb. 17. The defeat came just hours after she was named the Big Ten Conference Women’s Tennis Player of the Week. Taney is the second Wolverine to receive the honor this season. Sugiyama has earned the distinction twice.
Michigan had already clinched the dual with an insurmountable 5-1 lead, thanks to Mahtani’s comfortable, straight-set victory. But the freshmen didn’t let up.
The third freshman, Muresan, kept her own singles winning streak intact. She stormed back from a discouraging first set to tally her 12th win a row, defeating Manon Noe in the tiebreaker, 2-6, 6-2, 1-0.
Michigan’s youth was a point of concern when the Wolverines sputtered to a 2-4 start in dual meet play at the beginning of the year. The three freshmen combined to go 5-13 in singles action during that start. But Tatsuno, Muresan and Taney have adjusted quickly to collegiate competition. Since Feb. 17, the three have revived their inaugural campaigns with a combined 31-1 record.
“I think they’re relaxed now, and feeling a lot more comfortable with what they’re doing,” Bernstein said of her freshmen. “They’ve finally settled down.”
Once Michigan’s question marks, the freshmen have provided all the answers lately, and that should have the remaining opponents worried. With the Big Ten championship coming up on April 24, Michigan is peaking at the perfect time.