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After digging deep, Andrew Fenty looks to help Michigan tennis go deeper in NCAAs


The return landed out, to his left. Andrew Fenty tossed his racquet, looked at his charging Michigan tennis teammates, stretched his arms wide in that "Gladiator" are-you-not-entertained way, then did a little jig. They engulfed him, everyone hugging, and in their scrum joyously celebrated together.

With Fenty’s singles victory, Michigan tennis advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight. That's where the Wolverines will face Ohio State, the team they defeated May 1 for the Big Ten tournament championship, Thursday night at Illinois' Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.

Even a few days later, Fenty isn’t sure how he managed to turn around his clinching match last Saturday against Texas. On paper, his 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 win over Pierre-Yves Bailly looks matter of fact. But Fenty was trailing 3-1 in the deciding set when the matches were moved indoors because of rain. He lost another game. Michigan needed a singles win, but Fenty was struggling and Ondrej Styler, on the top court, was in a neck-and-neck tiebreaker.

Then something happened as Fenty trailed 4-1. He likes tennis because it reminds him of chess. He likes singles because it’s about solving problems on your own. He began to see the court like a chessboard and where he could make his moves. Fenty won the next five games, forcing Bailly to hit an errant shot off a backhand return to end the match.

“It definitely felt like a chess match, and I started to figure it out,” Fenty said in an interview with The Detroit News. “I started using all my pieces, and when I did, it finally clicked for us at the end. I believed that I could do it. I just found a second gear and just rolled with it.”

More: Michigan men's tennis embracing latest battle with Ohio State, in Elite Eight

Not intentionally, he also made a fashion statement. He wore a white tennis shoe on his left foot and a black shoe on his right during the match.

“I broke my shoelace and I didn't feel like changing it, so I just like just put on a white shoe,” Fenty said, laughing. “Someone commented on my social media and said, ‘They're like you got on your dancing shoes,’ so I’ve been telling people they’re my dancing shoes.”

He just may wear the combination in the Elite Eight. After all, they’re associated with what felt like a momentum-shifting match for him.

Fenty, who arrived as a five-star recruit from Washington, D.C., was the ITA Freshman of the Year and Big Ten Rookie of the Year in 2019. He was the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2020 and went 13-4 last season with a 10-3 record at No. 1 singles.

But this year has been challenging for the 6-foot-4, 205-pound senior. He is 10-7 playing matches on the top-three courts. He was playing No. 3 last Saturday and has a 4-1 record there.

“He’s had a tough year,” Michigan coach Adam Steinberg said last Saturday. “He’s had so much success in his college career. I know the guys couldn’t be happier for Drew getting through that. He needed that big time. He hasn’t had a win like that in a while. After (he got down) 4-1, he just loosened up, he just went for it. It was amazing.”

As Michigan prepares for one of its biggest tennis moments in years with a shot at making the Final Four, Fenty felt like he learned a lot about himself in that match.

“I was grinding,” Fenty said. “I went from super far down, to winning, to winning the match, and it felt like this year it meant something bigger than me. I believe this match showed me my true character. I definitely didn't play the best. I was playing good then playing bad then was absolutely out of the match, and then found my way back to playing great.”

Fenty said his game improved this year but wasn’t showing in his match outcomes. That win, he said, has restored his confidence.

When Fenty was choosing his college destination, many were confused why he’d want to play tennis at Michigan, which hasn’t won a national title since 1957. It was a fine program, but the Wolverines had only made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament twice in the last 14 years and once under Steinberg, in his eighth season at Michigan. But Steinberg won a national championship at Pepperdine and knows how to get it done.

This is the deepest the program has been in years. Michigan went 16-0 at home this season, is 4-0 on neutral courts and has an eight-match winning streak. Fenty is a big part of the Wolverines' growth.

“I could have gone anywhere and they were like, ‘Why Michigan?’” said Fenty, whose twin brother Matthew is the Michigan team manager and often hits in with the team during practices. “And now it's kind of like a funny joke. We've just worked hard for years. This has been years in the making.”

The Wolverines have had some big wins this season over highly ranked teams, like No. 1 TCU and two wins over Ohio State, which was ranked No. 2 in the early match and No. 4 in the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes have been the dominant men’s tennis program in the Big Ten for more than a decade, but Michigan holds a 2-1 series lead this season heading into the Elite Eight.

Fenty likes that they’re playing their rivals again.

“They’ve seen the team we have, so it's just gonna be another war,” he said. “But this time, we're playing for the Final Four.”

Earlier this year, Fenty and Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara were part of a photo shoot with Tom Brady as part of a college NIL deal as ambassadors for the new “Brady” clothing line. Fenty called it a day he will never forget and said he spent a good amount of time talking to Brady.

“He actually said, ‘Lead your team to a Big Ten championship and a national championship,’” Fenty said.

And that’s what he is trying to do. Fenty, who is majoring in English, is returning for another season next year, but that’s not important right now. The focus is on this Michigan team and this NCAA Tournament.

“For me, the standards are pretty high,” Fenty said. “They were pretty high freshman year. As for individual achievements, I've done it all, really, if you look at the accolades. But as a team, however, we have not. We actually are accomplishing everything team-related this year. We're doing it.

“I didn’t get the accolades or achievements this year, but that’s not why I play, that's not why I came here, so I'm not too fazed by it. We're winning. We're in the Elite Eight. That's why I’m here.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis