Despite the struggles it has faced this season, the Michigan women’s tennis team has the opportunity to secure its first winning season since 1997 – the same year the Wolverines won the Big Ten and NCAA regional titles.
The Wolverines enter the final weekend of the season facing Indiana and Purdue. Michigan coach Bitsy Ritt wants her team to improve its ability to win the close sets, especially tie-breakers, which proved costly in a 5-2 loss to Iowa last week.
Against the Hawkeyes, Michigan (3-5 Big Ten, 10-9 overall) broke a stretch during which it won six of its last eight matches, upsetting two top-40 teams. Upon returning to practice yesterday, Ritt hoped the Wolverines would be ready to return to competition and maintain consistency, something she has preached all season. But the loss took the wind out of Michigan’s sails when a win would have propelled them into a more favorable draw in next week’s Big Ten Tournament.
“We have to be aware of what we did poorly (against Iowa),” Ritt said. “But we also need to spend time evaluating what we did well in order to prepare for our next opponent.”
One of the key focuses during practice this week has been adjusting to playing outside for the first time in Ann Arbor. Weather permitting, one of the matches will be played on the outdoor courts at the Varsity Tennis Center in preparation for the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines have played one match outside this season – a 7-0 victory in Tampa Fla. against South Florida on March 2 – but Ritt feels the Wolverines need to play “smarter” outside and adjust to nature’s interference.
“We need to make the necessary adjustments to the elements,” Ritt said. “We need to take advantage of what the wind gives us, and because we haven’t played a competitive match outside in quite awhile, we need to be ready for anything.”
The experience in South Florida gives Michigan an advantage, as Tampa provided warm conditions and wind gusts, similar to what Ritt expects this weekend. But no amount of indoor preparation can imitate the way wind can affect competition.
“Only by playing outside can you feel comfortable playing in that situation, and (South Florida) gave us that opportunity,” Ritt said.
On Sunday, Michigan will take on one of the most successful women’s tennis programs in Big Ten history – Indiana. The Hoosiers (4-4, 15-7) dominated the ’80s and ’90s, winning 15 of the last 22 Big Ten titles. But this season’s conference schedule hasn’t been kind to Indiana. The Hoosiers dropped a 4-3 contest to Minnesota – the worst team in the Big Ten – two weeks ago, and suffered a 4-3 loss to Ohio State Sunday. Purdue (4-4, 8-10) also lost to Ohio State 4-3. Michigan beat the Buckeyes two weekends ago.
Indiana and Purdue have fallen on the same weekend the past three seasons, and the Wolverines have yet to beat either team when they face both of them back to back.
“Indiana has been up and down this season with several 4-3 losses,” Ritt said. “Although their program has a lot of tradition and success in the past, this year’s team is just 4-4, and I feel this is anybody’s match.”
Next Thursday, the Wolverines will head to Bloomington for the Big Ten Championships. Depending on the outcome of this weekend’s matches, Michigan could be seeded as high as fifth going into the tournament.
Michigan has gone 1-3 in the Big Ten Tournament in the past three seasons.