Approaching the net, Alex Najarian half-volleyed the ball over the net, split stepped and prepared for the next shot. The junior scooped the ball and the backspin forced the ball to fall dead — clinching the No. 10 Michigan women’s tennis team’s advancement to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament.
The beginning of the long road to a national championship began for the Wolverines when they opened up the first two rounds of NCAA Tournament play over the weekend. After a swift 4-0 win over Youngstown State on Friday, Michigan took on Kentucky and came away with a 4-2 victory.
The Penguins didn’t pose much of a threat to the Wolverines. After clinching the doubles point with a win at No. 1 and No. 3, Michigan moved on to singles with an advantage. Apparently it didn’t need it though, as Michigan took all six first sets. Sophomore Kate Fahey had an impressive day, dropping only one game.
Najarian and Fahey dominated the No. 1 doubles matchup after falling into a 40-0 hole in the first game. They rallied back to take the game and closed out the match, 6-0. Fahey followed suit in singles, taking the first set, 6-0, after a long rally which forced Youngstown State to mishit the ball into the net. Fahey almost finished her day without allowing her opponent to earn a single game, but made an unforced error on match point to make the score 5-1.
However, Fahey didn’t seem phased, as she won every point of the next game and took the match on a double fault from Dominika Lackova.
With Fahey swiftly off the court and freshman Chiara Lommer not far behind with a 6-2, 6-1 victory at No. 4 doubles, it was a race to see which Wolverine could punch Michigan’s ticket to the second round. In the end, the honor was left to Najarian.
After controlling most of her match, she struggled to close it out in the end. It took her three match points, but Youngstown State’s offensive shot sailed wide, giving the Wolverines their fourth point.
Saturday’s matchup was sure to be a bigger test for Michigan as they faced the 17th-ranked Wildcats. The doubles point was highly contested and all teams took turns in the lead.
It appeared that No. 2 doubles was going to be the first off the court. The pair of sophomore Brienne Minor and freshman Chiara Lommer had a 5-2 lead and match point, but Minor approached the net and volleyed it long.
The Wolverines didn’t seem worried, though, until Kentucky stormed back and won the next five games.
Minor had to serve the deuce point to send it to a tiebreaker or give the Wildcats the match, and she double faulted. Kentucky took the match, 7-5.
The No. 3 doubles pair of junior Mira Ruder-Hook and freshman Valeria Patiuk was the next off the court, just not with the result they wanted. Their Wildcat opponent intercepted the baseline rally and put the ball away at Ruder-Hook’s feet, taking the match, 7-5, and securing the doubles point for Kentucky.
Winning four of the singles matches was a tall task, but Michigan welcomed the challenge.
“We’ve lost a lot of doubles points this year, we’ve kind of figured out how to get four singles,” said Michigan coach Ronni Bernstein. “I feel like we gave it away a little, especially at two (doubles)… the (doubles) point, while it’s big, it’s just one point and there’s six points out there and I felt like we could still do it in the singles and that’s what I told them.”
The matches started off close, but Ruder-Hook and Lommer were the first to pull away, winning 6-2, 6-1, and 6-0, 6-4, respectively.
While the Wolverines had won four of the six first sets, it wasn’t guaranteed that the matches were going to stay that way. Minor fell into a hole early in her match, but after Kentucky lost a long rally and hit the ball wide to make the score 4-3 instead of 5-2, the match turned around.
Minor took the first set, 7-5, and rolled to a 6-4 second set win. Clearly frustrated throughout her match, Minor was elated when her Wildcat opponent tried to run her back and forth on the baseline and ended up sailing it long.
Strapped with a 3-1 lead, Michigan needed one more win to advance. It seemed as if Najarian was going to close her match out easily — but faltered and was forced into a tiebreaker.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Najarian cruised in the tiebreaker, winning, 7-3. She turned to the crowd and raised her arms in celebration.
“I mean, it was exciting,” Najarian said. “But it’s a whole team effort. It’s not just me ever, and even when I clinch it’s a whole team effort. Everyone watching, everyone playing, everyone’s giving their best effort. And that encourages me to play my best.”