For Thomas and Maria Petrone, the trip from Staten Island, N.Y almost wasn’t worth it.
The Michigan men’s tennis team had just lost its dual against Duke, but Alex Petrone was still fighting to win his match in front of the second-largest crowd ever at the Varsity Tennis Center. More importantly, his parents were watching.
“It was too bad that we had already lost the match, but I kept fighting through it for myself,” Petrone said.
Petrone’s determination eventually earned him a come-from-behind, three-set victory over Blue Devil Torsten Wietoska. The match was over when Petrone dominated the third-set tiebreaker, winning six points in a row. The freshman’s win made the trip worthwhile for his parents, who saw their son play in Ann Arbor for the first time this year.
After the first hour, it seemed even better for Thomas and Maria. Michigan had just won the doubles point, thanks to wins by the No. 2 doubles team of Petrone and fellow freshman Michael Zhu and the No. 3 doubles team of sophomores Barrett Franks and Alex Buzzi.
Petrone and Zhu dominated their opponents. Early in the match, they won eight of 10 points to jump ahead, 3-1. The duo never looked back, storming out to a two-break, 6-2 lead when Petrone hit a top-spin lob over both Duke players deep in the court. They took the pro-set, 8-3.
“I thought me and (Zhu) played solid as a team,” Petrone said. “We communicated well and got the job done and everything was working. We took our chances on the returns and won the match pretty handily.”
Petrone and Zhu were the first pair to finish, leaving the doubles point up to either the No. 1 team of junior Evan King and sophomore Shaun Bernstein or the No. 3 team.
And it was Franks and Buzzi who put on a show and stepped up for Michigan. Their overhead slams on the court were matched by raucous crowd support off of it.
“It was good to have that crowd to start with,” Franks said. “Usually, we don’t get much, but I decided to force all my friends to come out and watch. They were loud and all on my side, so that was awesome. We really fed off the energy.”
Despite the noise and the flashy shots from Buzzi and Franks, the Duke duo of David Holland and Chris Mengel hung in the match. That is, until Buzzi hit a backhand return down the line for a winner, break-of-serve, and a 6-4 lead.
The Wolverines and Blue Devils exchanged the next two games, but on match point for Michigan, Buzzi hit another overhead slam to win the pro-set, 8-5, to give Michigan the doubles point and the 1-0 lead in the dual.
“It was a positive for us that we could win a doubles point against a top-10 team with our best team not playing up to par and losing,” said Michigan coach Bruce Berque. “This match leads to some positive feelings about the chances for us to play good doubles this year, because we’re getting better.”
Despite the doubles point win, the momentum heading into singles play and the crowd behind the Wolverines, the Duke singles play proved too much for the Maize and Blue.
No. 1 and No. 2 singles players King and Bernstein both had chances serving to win their first sets. King was up 5-1 on nationally ranked No. 7 Henrique Cuhna, and Bernstein had a 5-3 lead of his own over nationally ranked No. 17 Mengel. But neither King nor Bernstein could close out the first set, and both Wolverines lost their lead and their match.
“(King) wasn’t keeping the ball deep, and the other guy was just dictating the whole time,” said Michigan assistant coach Mark Merklein. “There was nothing he could do today.”
No. 4 singles player Zhu struggled to get started against Duke’s Fred Saba. He wasn’t alone, as No. 6 singles player Buzzi also had a tough start. Both players dropped their first set, while only surrendered one break apiece in the second set — but a lone break was all the Blue Devil players needed to cruise to victory.
By that point, Duke had won the three matches on the south courts at Varsity Tennis Center, giving them a 3-1 lead in the dual. The crowd migrated over to the northern courts, though the match seemed over. Though Franks, in an impressive display of tennis, had won his match at No. 5 singles to inch the Wolverines one point closer, King’s match was all but over.
With King down 5-1 in the second set, Cuhna aced his match point to seal the deal for the Blue Devils.
Despite the team loss, Petrone was in the thick of a third-set battle against a loudly screaming, hard-serving German.
Petrone couldn’t touch Wietoska’s serve, but it didn’t matter, as Petrone’s service game was just as good. The breakless set eventually entered a tiebreaker, which Petrone won easily, giving him the match, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, and his second victory in a row.
“My confidence is high right now,” Petrone said. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve been playing really good tennis, and I just want to keep that up for the rest of the season.”
At the conclusion of the match, Wietoska threw his racquet 30 feet into the air before it caromed off of a wire that was separating two courts. The racquet toss summed up Wietoska’s match, which was filled with arguments with the line judge and loud fits of self-criticism. Unfortunately for Michigan, Wietoska’s outburst reflected only his match, and not the final dual-match score.
The Wolverines’ loss to Duke puts them at 1-1 on the young season. Michigan must regain focus quickly in preparation for next week’s ITA Kick-Off Weekend in Austin, Texas, which will serve as a true test for the young Wolverine team.
“We need to win two of the three matches next weekend to qualify for the National Indoors, which is something we haven’t done in three or four years,” Berque said. “Our guys will have to get excited next weekend on the road.”
“It is really different to play inside at home and then go to play outside on the road, but it is a big tournament and I’m sure our guys will be eager to play.”