With Michigan and Alabama splitting the first two doubles matches, the team doubles point hinged on the Wolverines’ new pairing of senior co-captain Leanne Rutherford and freshman Allie Shafner against Alabama’s Melissa Minor and Natalie McElveen.
Shafner was seeing her first action of the season, and the tandem had trouble adjusting to each other’s style of play, falling behind, 4-1. But then, as if someone flicked on a switch, the two found their rhythm and rolled off wins in four consecutive games before Alabama righted the ship and kept the match on serve.
Leading 7-6 but needing to break the Crimson Tide’s serve to win, Rutherford and Shafner picked up their game by playing smart tennis, and Rutherford exemplified this type of play on match point. Noticing that her opponent was cheating towards the middle to cut off her return, Rutherford guided the ball down the line for a perfect winner to give the Wolverines the team doubles point.
“The doubles point is huge,” coach Bitsy Ritt said. “Our No. 3 doubles was a new combination, and they were very tough under pressure. Leanne provided a calming influence and excellent leadership for Allie.”
The Wolverines stormed in front early in their 5-2 win over the No. 32 Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday at the Varsity Tennis Center in Ann Arbor. After earning the hotly contested team doubles point, No. 20 Michigan carried the momentum into singles play, winning three quick matches to seal the win before Alabama had a chance to breathe.
Sophomore Kara Delicata started the barrage at No. 3 singles, overpowering Melissa Day 6-0, 6-2. At No. 5 singles, junior Nina Yaftali was too consistent for Alabama’s Andrea Brenes, and Yaftali cruised to a 6-3, 6-1, win.
Rutherford sealed the team victory at No. 4 singles. Proving to be a thorn in the Crimson Tide’s side once again, she methodically marched past Minor, 6-3, 6-0.
With the win already in hand, Shafner showed her heart and desire in her three-set victory at No. 6 singles. Playing in her first match of the season, Shafner undoubtedly wanted to prove she belonged, as she outlasted Alabama’s Maria Muller, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5.
“Allie was very impressive,” Ritt said. “She was challenged, and she came through. She was just awesome.”
Michigan senior co-captain Michelle DaCosta showed tremendous heart despite losing. Facing the No. 8 singles player in the country, –Alabama junior Robin Stephenson, — DaCosta fought back to force a third-set tiebreaker before falling, 6-3, 6-7 (6), 1-0(6).
Earlier in the day, DaCosta teamed up with Delicata to upset Ashley Bentley and Stephenson — — the No. 12 doubles team in the country –— in impressive and business like fashion, 8-4.
“That was a very big win for us,” Ritt said. “Kara and Michelle had lost to them two previous times. To take care of them so easily set a great tone for the match.”
Michigan’s pairing of sophomore Elizabeth Exon and Yaftali fell to Day and Muller, 9-7, at No. 2 doubles. And Exon lost to Bentley, 6-4, 6-1, at No. 2 singles to round out the singles play.
The Wolverines’ 5-2 victory over Alabama marked their first win over a ranked opponent this season and improved their record to 2-2.
Michigan will go on the road to face South Carolina on Friday.