It’s often cliché to talk about being up against all odds. But on Sunday, the Michigan men’s tennis team truly was.
The Wolverines entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed and were facing second-seeded Ole Miss. To add to the uphill battle, No. 21 Michigan had to play in Oxford, Miss. in front of a crowd rooting hard against the maize and blue. The Wolverines also traveled to the tournament with only six active players – the exact number needed to play a dual – and no substitutes because of one season-long injury and one illness.
But that was before the match even started.
Just 20 minutes in, a slight mist forced the match indoors – but only after over an hour of waiting for it to subside.
To add to the unfortunate events, the Rebels’ facility only housed three courts – meaning that players had to wait for their turn during singles – and the indoor courts made the opposing fans even louder than before.
Michigan put up a fight, but eventually lost, 4-2, on a second set ace by No. 5 singles player Johan Backstrom on match point to send Ole Miss to the Sweet 16.
However, the series seemed to favor the Wolverines, who got off to a hot start in doubles, and, at one point, led on all three courts.
At No. 1 doubles, junior Evan King and sophomore Shaun Bernstein had a 5-2 lead. On court three, freshmen Alex Petrone and Michael Zhu were leading 4-1, while sophomores Barrett Franks and Alex Buzzi were exchanging games and held a late 7-6 advantage on court two.
“We certainly had a good chance to close that doubles point out, and I think that would’ve put us in really good shape, but we weren’t able to do it,” said Michigan coach Bruce Berque.
But the tide soon started to turn. At No. 1, the 13th-ranked Rebels team stormed past the Wolverine duo to win six of the next seven games and the pro-set, 8-6. Michigan’s freshmen, Petrone and Zhu, faltered and let Ole Miss back into the match at 7-5.
Despite Petrone and Zhu eventually winning their match, 8-6, Buzzi and Franks dropped the final three games to No. 17 Marcel and Chris Thiemann to lose the pro-set and doubles point for the Wolverines.
“After the doubles point, all of our guys recognized that we kind of blew it,” Berque said. “We really challenged them to see if they believed they could pull off the upset and recover from the doubles point, and they came out firing.”
Because of rain and the shortage of indoor courts, only three singles matches could be played at once – meaning singles players from No. 1 to No. 3 would take the courts first.
Ole Miss struck first when No. 45 Jonas Lutjen surrendered just four games to Bernstein at third singles. Bernstein, who still hasn’t fully recovered from a shoulder injury suffered in late April, serving the entire match underhanded.
Despite the 2-0 disadvantage, Michigan battled back at No. 1 and No. 2 singles.
“I was really happy to see that losing the doubles point didn’t affect them that much,” Berque said. “It can be deflating when you miss an opportunity like that, but they really came out hard and played well in singles.
Petrone got the first break in his match to get a 4-2 edge. The Wolverine freshman didn’t surrender his own break of serve and won the first set 6-4. In the second set, No. 20 Marcel Thiemann got the first break and claimed a 3-0 lead.
But down 4-2, Petrone wasn’t going to let Thiemann take the set that easily and started to fight. Petrone battled the set back to four-all, before continuing a streak of four straight games to clinch the set and match. Petrone’s come-from-behind upset over Thiemann put the Wolverines on the board.
“I think today’s match will give the guys confidence for sure, especially a guy like Petrone at No. 2 singles, who beat the No. 20-ranked guy in the country,” Berque said. “That’s definitely something he can build off of next year.”
At No. 1 singles, King did what he has done all season and wasn’t fazed by playing No. 14 Nik Scholtz. In each set, the Michigan junior got the first break of serve. That was all King needed to win, 6-4, 6-3, extending his winning streak to seventeen matches, and leveling his team with Ole Miss in the dual.
In the No. 4 singles match, No. 83 William Kallberg – one of the Rebels’ four top-100 players – broke Zhu at five-all in the second set, before serving to win the set and match 6-4, 7-5.
All the pressure of a Sweet-16 birth and a second-round victory rested on the shoulders of doubles partners Franks and Buzzi at No. 5 and No. 6 singles, respectively.
Franks dropped his first set, but responded with a 6-3 set win of his own to send the match to a third. On the final court, Buzzi won his first set, 7-5, and took a 4-2 second set lead with hopes of leveling the dual at three.
Unfortunately for Michigan, Franks quickly fell into a 5-2 hole after Backstrom served up two aces in a row to win the game.
Franks responded, however, by winning a service game of his own to make the set 5-3. But the Swede still had a shot to serve for the set, match, and dual.
Down break point, Franks was forced to fire a shot wide to put the game into deuce. At deuce, the Rebels’ No. 5 hit yet another ace on the match to give himself the advantage and match point.
With the Sweet 16 on the line, Backstrom missed his first serve, but somehow pulled out yet another ace on his second serve to seal it.
The partisan Rebel crowd went wild, as Backstrom’s ace vaulted Ole Miss into the Sweet 16, and sent the Wolverines back to Ann Arbor sorely disappointed.
“Unfortunately, we just came up one point too short in the dual,” Berque said. “It really looked like Buzzi was in control at No. 6 singles and we were going to get three matches, so it all came down to No. 5.”
While the Wolverines failed to earn a bid to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the fourth-consecutive season, Evan King will still look forward to playing in the NCAA Individual Championships as the tournament’s No. 6 seed.
“These guys have really been impressive in the way they’ve been able to handle stuff all year long,” Berque said. “They’ve done a tremendous job handling stuff all year long, especially as freshmen and sophomores, and we almost made it to the Sweet 16.”
“Everybody on the team has really done good things at different times all year, and we get everybody back next year and I think next season looks good.”