'It feels surreal': UM men's tennis edges Texas in epic match, makes Elite Eight

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The season has been a real struggle for Michigan tennis' Andrew Fenty, and Saturday appeared to be shaping up to add even more disappointment to his senior season.

But that's the thing about this Michigan tennis team. There's a grit to it, a relentless refusal to quit.

"I just told the team that they were so tough today," Michigan head coach Adam Steinberg said. "You know, the last few years, I've seen it grow and grow and grow. Now there's this belief factor that they didn't have. Two years ago, it'd be a different answer from me.

Michigan senior Andrew Fenty celebrates his match-clinching win against Texas in the NCAA Super Regionals on Saturday in Ann Arbor.

"But it doesn't matter what the score is, doesn't matter. They find a way, they found a way all year.

"And they're still going."

With No. 1 singles player Ondrej Styler in an epic battle on the next court over, Fenty rallied in the third set from down 4-1 to beat Texas' Pierre-Yves Bailly, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, to send Michigan into the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Up next: Rival Ohio State, on Thursday in Champaign, Illinois.

On match point, Fenty flipped his racket into the air as a crowd in the hundreds, and well behind Michigan, celebrated a 4-2 Super Regionals victory — one that finished indoors at Michigan's Varsity Tennis Center after a big storm blew through, leading to a 50-minute delay just as things were really getting tense.

No. 5 Michigan improved to 25-3; No. 12 Texas finishes 18-11.

Fenty was Michigan's No. 1 singles player most of last season, and was 13-5. This season, he has split his time between 1, 2 and 3, and was 9-7.

At least, before Saturday.

"It feels surreal, man. It feels like the hard work paid off," Fenty said. "I haven't felt like this in a long time after a win, feeling so out of a match and all of a sudden I'm serving for the match. Man, it's been pretty crazy.

"Dude, we don't really care — outside, inside, up, down, man, we just like keep going, we keep fighting, good to the end. We thought Styler was gonna win and I was down 4-1, the next thing you know it's completely flipped. ... We don't care. Doesn't matter who wins it. ... 

"We needed it. We needed my win, my clinch."

Just before the lightning delay, sophomore Nino Ehrenschneider, at No. 5 singles, clawed to a gutsy victory over Siem Woldeab, one that required two tiebreakers, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4). It was Ehrenschneider's 12th consecutive singles win. 

That one put Michigan a point from winning the Super Regional, with Styler looking poised for a great clinching comeback against Eliot Spizzirri, winning the second set 7-6 (7-4) after dropping the first, 1-6. 

Styler took a lead in the third set, and needed to just hold serve and Michigan would win.

But Spizzirri broke through and got it to 6-6 (3-3), before Fenty made it a moot point — igniting a mob scene on the court; Ehrenschneider said the match gave him "goosebumps." By then, senior Patrick Maloney, too, was already a spectator, a winner at No. 2 singles over Micah Braswell, 6-3, 6-3.

"That was tough. I'd almost rather be playing. I'm way more nervous when I'm watching," Maloney said. "But it was really fun to watch Fenty come through. For him to win this match, it's huge for him and for this team.

"I think it just shows how tough we are, how bad we want it. We compete."

From start to finish.

And, oh, by the way, what a start it was.

Michigan raced to massive leads in all three doubles matches, looking to secure that point with ease — especially after Maloney and Nick Beaty made quick work of Richard Ciamarra and Cleeve Harper, 6-1, at No. 2 doubles (Maloney this season has 24 wins at singles and 24 at doubles). But Texas — coached by Bruce Berque, Michigan's coach from 2004-14, leading the Wolverines to nine NCAA Tournaments — came storming back in the other two, and Texas' Spizzirri and Woldeab came all the way back to beat Ehrenschneider and Fenty, 6-4, after Michigan led that one, 4-1.

The Michigan tennis team celebrates its NCAA Super Regional victory over Texas.

Michigan's Styler and Jacob Bickersteth took a 5-1 lead on Texas' Chih Chi Huang and Eshan Talluri, only for Texas to eventually tie it at 6.

Michigan prevailed in the tiebreaker, 7-6 (7-5), winning doubles for the 24th time in 28th matches this season — though it might never have been a more critical point, not just because Michigan knew how good Texas' singles players were, but just as critical for the Wolverines' psyche.

"I don't think they loved the way we won it," Steinberg said of his players. "But my assistant coach and I loved it because they (Texas) gave us everything they had and we still came through.

"I mean, I always say there's nothing like college tennis. That's why I'm doing it so long. People who don't know our sport should come watch that match, and they'll become a fan quick. I just told the guys, I'm doing this 33, 34 years, and that was, if not the best, one of the best matches I've ever been a part of. A lot of emotions, up and down, indoors and outdoors, a lot going on. I'm so happy for the guys, beyond happy."

Thursday's Elite Eight showdown between Michigan and Ohio State will be their fourth meeting this season. They split the regular-season series, each winning at home, and Michigan won, 4-2, in the Big Ten tournament finals earlier in May.

Ohio State beat Southern Cal, 4-2, on Saturday in Columbus.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984