In the Big Ten world of women’s tennis, the Mandate of Heaven is a two-pronged trophy made of glass, granite and oak.
As senior Denise Muresan clutched it to her chest following the match against Northwestern on Saturday, she gave credit to her teammates, citing all the hard work they had poured into securing the title for the second season in a row. She and her classmates in particular, who were honored prior to the game, had been primarily responsible for Michigan’s recent meteoric rise in the Big Ten.
“I’m just so thankful that I’ve had these four years at Michigan,” Muresan said. “I just wanted to enjoy every moment of it.”
Just minutes earlier, Muresan and fellow seniors Whitney Taney and Rika Tatsuno secured the singles points necessary to beat Northwestern to claim the third regular-season championship in program history. Muresan earned the match-winner, breaking the serve of Maria Mosolova — the 13th best player in the nation — and simultaneously breaking the Wildcats’ spirit.
The Wolverines went on to win 6-1. By the end, avoiding a sweep was all Northwestern had left to play for.
Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein, doing her best to maintain a coach-like composure, said simply that the team had treated this game just like any other game. They would enjoy the win, learn from it and move on.
But as Muresan cradled the Big Ten trophy and the celebration made its way from the outdoor court to the second floor of the Varsity Tennis Center in Ann Arbor, the sullen looks of the departing Wildcat team indicated that history was far from lost in the moment.
For most of recent memory, the trophy had belonged to Northwestern coach Claire Pollard and her squad. The Wildcat dynasty lasted nearly a decade, from 2000-2009, and its rule over the Midwest during this stretch was relentless and without mercy. Scores of classes at every other school in the conference came and went knowing only defeat at their hands.
Michigan, one of the less fortunate teams, had not beaten Northwestern since 1997.
In April 2010, however, an up-and-coming Wolverine team eked out a 4-3 win to stun the fifth-ranked Wildcats in Evanston. It was Northwestern’s first Big Ten loss since 2004. Apoplectic, Northwestern responded by crushing each of its opponents in the following Big Ten Tournament, including Michigan in the final round, 4-0. But the damage was already done.
The Mandate was lost and their dynasty began to crumble.
On Saturday, the Wolverines finally brought the Wildcats to their knees and won the Big Ten trophy another year of residency in Ann Arbor. Though it’s too early to crown Michigan the new ruler of the Big Ten, it’s not going to keep Bernstein from pushing forward until her team gets there.
“I would like to keep it going,” Bernstein said, as jubilant players and fans milled past her.
“I’m not going to stop. I want to keep improving the team and bring more titles to Michigan.”