It was a familiar scene at the Varsity Tennis Center when the Michigan women’s tennis team succumbed to No. 2 North Carolina.
Nearly every year the Wolverines face the Tar Heels, and nearly every year they can’t manage to secure a victory. But still, year after year, Michigan puts them on its schedule in order to pack its nonconference slate with highly-ranked teams — giving them experience early in the season.
“We try to get a really tough nonconference schedule so it’s kind of worked out that way,” said associate head coach Teryn Ashley-Fitch. “I feel like we get pretty good matches with them and just try to load up on quality teams outside of the Big Ten.”
Senior Kate Fahey added: “It’s a really cool opportunity that we get to play them every year. They’re obviously, I think they’re ranked in the top 5 like every single year and this year we got to play them at home. And it’s tough. … So yeah, I think the key was really coming in with no pressure and kind of playing out and also competing and I think we were still pretty nervous. I think we knew it was a good opportunity. I don’t think we really captured the opportunity.”
From the outset, it could have gone either way. The Wolverines looked strong in doubles and have an arsenal of singles players, but Michigan continued to fall into the same trends of the past.
Over the last 10 seasons, Michigan faced North Carolina eight times, with its sole victory coming in 2016. Even over the past two years, the Wolverines have managed to steal only one game from the Tar Heels — making the two games they managed Sunday an improvement.
North Carolina is a consistently impressive program, and Michigan’s seniors have yet to face a Tar Heel team that wasn’t ranked in the Top 5. While beating them is no small feat, the Wolverines need to make changes if they want this cycle to end.
And it starts with the doubles.
Michigan seemed to have the advantage as the No. 1 pair of senior Kate Fahey and junior Giulia Pairone rolled in their doubles match, nearly winning 6-2 before the final game was abandoned. Even the No. 3 pair had a 3-1 lead, but let the Tar Heels win five consecutive games to take the match and clinch the doubles point.
When a match has the possibility of being as tightly contested as this could have been, winning the doubles point is crucial.
While North Carolina took the advantage, there were still plenty of points to be had. The key for the Wolverines was going to be the bottom of the lineup. It seemed clear from the opening serve that the eighth-ranked Fahey would roll in her match, so the difference had to be the players that are not necessarily consistent contributors.
In 2018, the Tar Heels swept both the No. 5 and No. 6 slots, with the fourth being abandoned. In 2017, North Carolina took four out of five sets in the No. 5 and No. 6 slots, with the fourth being abandoned. And on Sunday, sophomore Bella Lorenzini struggled in a 6-0, 6-3 loss in the No. 6 slot and junior Chiara Lommer lost a first-set tiebreaker on her way to a straight-set loss as well. While sophomore Alyvia Jones cruised to a 6-3, 6-3, win, the bottom of the lineup as a whole struggled — something that can’t happen against a such deep North Carolina team.
“I mean the girls are good. They step up; I think that was the biggest thing,” Fahey said. “They just rip balls, they hit it super hard. Especially on big points like deuce points they really play aggressive, which is what the best players do.
“They stayed tough, they competed well one through six. I think that was the biggest difference.”
History seems to be repeating itself for Michigan, and it may not have the pieces in place quite yet to compete with the highest echelon of women's college tennis, including North Carolina.
“Full credit to UNC. I think they played pretty well today and we played well at spots,” Ashley-Fitch said. “But, you know, I wouldn’t mind having another shot at them, but we definitely need to improve on certain things. I think the matches that we didn’t really feel great on the court, I’m not sure that we gave our best competitive effort.
“And that’s not to say that we didn’t want to win, but just being okay with not playing great while still trying to figure out a way to win and it’s definitely something we’re going to have to work on.”