In the last 26 years, the Michigan women’s tennis team has earned 10 trips to the NCAA tournament, but this weekend in Fayetteville, Ark., for the first time, the Wolverines earned a berth to the ITA National Indoor Team Championships.
They will be one of only fifteen teams competing in Madison on Feb. 11 after qualifying in this weekend’s ITA kick-off event. Ten of the last 21 winners in Madison have gone on to win the National Championship.
It started Friday when No. 19 Michigan was in a dogfight with No. 16 South Carolina. The Wolverines had an early lead, but halfway through the match, things were looking grim. The court seemed smaller and the net felt higher for Michigan.
Although Michigan had taken two out of three doubles matches, which have been the team’s saving grace in this young season, the Wolverines had dropped their first three singles matches. They had a 3-1 hole to dig themselves out of.
In a do-or-die situation, Michigan freshman Mimi Nguyen came through in the clutch in a incredible split-set victory to pull the Wolverines to 3-2.
Up next was sophomore Michelle Sulahian. After splitting sets, the third was tied at 5-5. Sulahian got the all-important break of serve and won the final set 7-5, keeping the Wolverines alive and evening the score at 3-3.
“Michelle has come a long way in a year,” Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein said. “She is really good under pressure and really stepped up today. She battled back after being down, and we really needed that.”
It all came down to a heavyweight battle of top players, Michigan junior Denise Muresan and South Carolina’s 38th-ranked Ana Zubori.
Muresan dropped the first set 3-6. In a tight and nervous second, the set came down to a tiebreak. Muresan managed to earn the mini-break early and win, 7-6 (4). Both players held serve until 5-5 when Muresan, with a couple of powerful forehands, broke Zubori’s serve and held onto win 7-5.
With that, Michigan won 4-3.
“It was a really intense match,” Bernstein said. “We go from being up and then we were down. Everyone really fought and battled back after being down early in their matches. This win is truly a testament to this team and how hard they work.”
On Saturday, the Wolverines and the 18th-ranked Razorbacks split the first two doubles matches and came down to another close match to earn the doubles point. Michigan juniors Whitney Taney and Rika Tatsuno got the break very late to win the match 9-7.
“It was not looking good for us for awhile,” Bernstein said. “At the end of Rika and Whitney’s match, they kept fighting out there and really went after it. They really won some big points and took advantage of the opportunities when they had them.”
After the doubles point, everything came together. Taney continued her near-perfect form in a close match victory that went to a super-tiebreaker. Sulahian and Nguyen won their matches, and Muresan dismantled Arkansas’s Anouk Tigu 6-1, 6-0. What looked close turned into a rather routine 5-2 victory.
“We came out against a home team and really took advantage of this opportunity,” Bernstein said. “I am so proud of this team and how hard they work. Advancing to the national tournament really shows us that we are improving and heading in the direction we want to be.”