McCartney Kessler readied her stance and dribbled the tennis ball four times near her left foot. Her racket calmly spun in her right hand as she focused in on Michigan’s Giulia Pairone.
Just moments before, Kessler faced a triple match point with the team match in jeopardy as Pairone needed just one point to seal a Wolverines victory.
The moment didn’t faze Kessler.
She used her power and skill to win the next three points and the set, and found herself serving for match point when defeat seemed inevitable an hour before.
She tossed the ball well above her head for her second serve, which was returned back from Pairone and eventually into the net. Her teammates stormed the court to congratulate one of its veterans on completing an improbable 4-3 comeback victory.
“McCartney, it’s unbelievable,” coach Roland Thornqvist shouted to Kessler as she was leaving the locker room. “I cannot begin to tell you the adjectives I have. Seriously.”
The Gators women’s tennis team’s rollercoaster match against No. 14 Michigan included a little bit of everything: a hot start, a sudden stumble, an incredible climax and a lot of emotion. In what was almost a must-win situation for Florida, the Gators pulled out arguably their biggest win of the season with the SEC and NCAA Tournaments looming in the coming month.
“They were really loud and were taking it to us at a couple of spots that I didn't really anticipate,” Thornqvist said of the Wolverines, which entered on an eight-match win streak. “I think previously this year, those were times that I felt like our team didn't have the maturity to withstand it. We would sort of fold a little. But today you saw the opposite of that.”
Florida (11-9, 7-5 SEC) had one of its most electric starts on the doubles court this season.
Dominating all aspects of the court, the Gators led 2-0 on all three courts and won the first eight games overall.
The freshmen tandem of Marlee Zein and Sydney Berlin was first to strike for Florida, defeating Chiara Lommer and Bella Lorenzini 6-3 for its third victory of the season.
No. 51 Victoria Emma and Kessler faced one of its fiercest opponents of the season in No. 25-ranked duo Katie Fahey and Brienne Minor. Michigan’s top duo entered Gainesville on a perfect eight-match win streak having yet to register a loss. The Gators’ sophomore tandem played its best match this season, controlling the net over its opponent leading to a quick 4-0 start.
Fahey and Minor were difficult to put away, winning four of the next five games to trail just 5-4 in the lone doubles set. Kessler kept the aggression high on the net, while Emma’s lethal serve helped propel Florida over Fahey and Minor and clinch the opening point for the Gators.
Jarlskog and Dimitrova lost in a tight 7-5 contest to Giulia Pairone and Anca Craciun on Court 2 seconds before Emma and Kessler were able to clinch the point.
As hot as Florida entered doubles play, they were equally cold in singles play.
Momentum shifted in favor of the Wolverines, with the Gators trailing on every court by at least three games early. This deficit continued to grow as games piled on, with Florida dropping all but one of its first sets in singles play.
The trend carried over into most second sets, with Emma being the first to fall for Florida in a 6-1, 6-4 loss to Minor. Though Jarlskog fought back in her first set against No. 3 Fahey by winning four consecutive games, the reigning Big Ten Athlete of the Year kept a tight grip on the match the whole way. She suffocated Jarlskog with tough shots en route to a 6-4, 6-0 finish and a 2-1 Michigan lead.
Berlin couldn’t rebound from her slow first set to Alyvia Jones on Court 6, falling in a straight 6-2, 6-2 loss for her fifth defeat this season. Jones’ win gave Michigan a 3-1 lead with Pairone seeming to have complete control over Kessler down the stretch. Despite the trainer seeing Kessler in between sets after her lingering hip injury began to bother her, Kessler refused to go down.
She overcame the triple match point, won the next seven games and just like that, the comeback was on.
Zein used the momentum from her narrow first set win over No. 45 Lommer to dominate the second set en route to a 7-5, 6-1 victory and Florida’s second team point. Dimitrova kept the Florida crowd cheering in her second and third set performances where she held Craciun to just three games (2-6, 6-1, 6-2) to tally another point for the Gators and tie the match at three.
Orange and Blue chants rang around the Ring Tennis Complex as Kessler secured the victory over No. 75 Pairone in a thrilling 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 match to capture Florida’s second Top 15 win in two weeks.
"McCartney is so tough,” Thornqvist said of Kessler. “She sensed we had an opportunity and she stepped up and took it. I think she learned a lot today and I'm so proud of the way she played.”