Throughout the season, it’s been the Michigan men’s tennis team’s goal to go to Columbus with a chance to beat No. 3 Ohio State (11-0 Big Ten, 29-2 overall) to win a share of the Big Ten championship.
After beating Penn State 6-1 on Friday in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines (9-2, 16-6) readjusted their season goal: beat the Buckeyes in Columbus and win a Big Ten title.
But on Sunday, Ohio State proved it didn’t want to share the title with its rivals up north. The Buckeyes won the doubles point before winning five of six singles matches en route to a 6-1 win. While Michigan finished the season with a stellar 9-2 record in Big Ten play, it came just short of winning its first conference title under head coach Bruce Berque.
At No. 1 doubles, the top-ranked Buckeye duo of Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola jumped out to a 4-1 break lead over the No. 22 pair of junior Evan King and sophomore Shaun Bernstein. The Wolverines’ No. 1 pair never recovered against the nation’s top team, losing 8-3. Sophomores Alex Buzzi and Barrett Franks also fell down a break at 5-2. Ohio State’s No. 2 pair used the momentum to take the pro-set, 8-4.
The Wolverines had just lost their first doubles point since March 25 against Minnesota — Michigan’s only Big Ten team loss of the season. Hoping for a different result than last time, given the doubles point loss, the Wolverines took the singles court with a conference championship on the line.
But it was the Buckeyes who dominated early, claiming five of six first sets. Only King won his first set for the Wolverines. King defeated Rola this past fall, despite losing in three previous tries, and on Sunday, King put himself in a position to win his second-straight match over the Slovenian.
“I think the first thing (King) has improved upon has been the consistency of his practice overall this year,” Berque said. “I think that’s led to some consistency in his focus when he plays matches. I also think that he has matured just in general with the way he practices and competes. And I think the other thing has been his serve. It’s improved to the point where he’s consistently able to get some points off his serve, which helps him hold easier.”
At No. 3 singles, Ohio State’s Peter Kobelt defeated Bernstein 6-1, 6-0, in a match that took a little over an hour, to give the Buckeyes a 2-0 lead.
“(The shoulder) is slowly getting better for Bernstein, but it isn’t 100 percent yet,” Berque said. “He’s able to play and compete, but he’s still pretty limited.”
Not long after Bernstein lost, Franks dropped his match in straight sets to No. 83 Devin McCarthy. Despite fighting in the first set — only to lose it 6-4 — Franks was dominated in a second set that McCarthy — one of Ohio State’s five top-100 players — won 6-1 to push Buckeyes’ dual lead to three.
At No. 6 singles, Buzzi was the Buckeyes’ next victim. In yet another straight-set match, Ohio State’s Connor Smith cruised to victory, dropping just four games in the process. Smith’s win clinched the duel for the Buckeyes and denied Michigan a share of the conference title.
The day didn’t get any better for the Wolverines. Freshmen Alex Petrone and Michael Zhu each lost straight set decisions at No. 2 and No. 4 singles to give Ohio State a 6-0 edge with only King and Rola still on the court.
No. 8 King — who was Michigan’s lone bright spot in singles — took down No. 6 Rola for the second straight time in a decisive 6-3, 6-3, victory.
“(King’s) beaten Rola now twice in a row, and Rola was a big nemesis of his, so I know that’s a good sign of his progress,” Berque said. “To go undefeated in the Big Ten is very difficult to do when you’re playing No. 1 singles, so that’s a great accomplishment for him.”
While Michigan lost its second Big Ten match and failed to win a share of the conference title, King finished the Big Ten season undefeated, in addition to winning his final 15 singles matches.
On Friday, the Wolverines defeated Penn State (11-13, 1-10), 6-1, in the home finale. Michigan’s victory over the Nittany Lions set the stage for Sunday’s showdown against rival Ohio State for a share of the Big Ten championship.
The Wolverines’ No. 1 doubles pair dropped its match, 9-7, but Michigan’s No. 2 and No. 3 duos each won 9-8 decisions to clinch the doubles point for the seventh straight match.
Bernstein dropped the first match of the day at No. 3 singles to Russell Bader in straight sets, allowing Penn State to tie the dual at one. But the Wolverines didn’t let the Nittany Lions get anything else, as Michigan claimed each of the bottom three singles matches in straight sets to clinch the dual.
King and Petrone also won at No. 1 and No. 2 singles, respectively, for the Wolverines to push the match score to 6-1. Petrone dropped the first set, but rallied to win 12 of next 13 games to win the match. King defeated Jason Lee, 6-4, 6-2, to extend his match win streak to 14.
“Our goal for most of the year was to get the opportunity to play for a championship,” Berque said. “After beating Penn State (Friday), we changed our goal to win the Big Ten championship (Sunday), but we knew it was going to be tough. Now our goal is to get healthy and to play a little better if possible before we play the Big Ten tournament next week.”
With the 1-1 weekend, Michigan will cruise into the Big Ten Tournament this weekend with a chance to avenge its loss to Ohio State.
“I’m expecting to see our best tennis of the year this postseason,” Berque said. “The only thing stopping us is our health, but I’m really hoping that will happen soon.
“I think everyone can get to full strength, and if we do that with everything we’ve learned and the way we’ve improved, I think we can have a great and special postseason.”