Net Nuts invade Atkins Tennis Center to cheer on athletes

By Erin Renzas

Orange-clad students stand throughout the bleachers that divide the Atkins Tennis Center. They clap in unison, their hands moving faster in anticipation of the next point in the then-No. 2 ranked Illini men’s tennis match against the then-No.19 Kentucky Wildcats. It is match point during Illinois junior Pramod Dabir and freshman teammate Kevin Anderson’s doubles match.

This is not the typical atmosphere for a college tennis match. The crowd boldly hammers on cowbells and hold up posters reading “In GD We Trust,” referring to Illinois sophomore GD Jones. These are the Illini Net Nuts.

“When you think of tennis, people clap a bit after each point, but here there is just so much enthusiasm,” said Matt Atienza, sophomore in LAS and a member of the student cheering section.

Atienza, wearing an orange Net Nuts T-shirt and matching neon orange hair, said he looks tame this match, adding that he usually paints his face in Illini spirit for the matches.

The Net Nuts were formed in fall 2000 with the intent to find 15 to 20 loyal fans who could lead cheers and spark enthusiasm at the matches, said Alex Voss, graduate assistant for the Atkins Tennis Center and Net Nuts organizer.

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“The reason it was formed was to get some excitement around men’s tennis,” Voss said. “Students didn’t know there was a team, let alone that the team was successful.”

The program was a success and now consists of 525 members, far more than the original blueprint the Net Nuts had in mind.

Colleges from across the nation, including Stanford, Georgia Tech and Texas A&M; have begun to follow in the Illini footsteps, requesting information about the Illini Net Nuts and how the program began.

“Net Nuts prove that college tennis is a lot different from professional tennis or junior tennis – you can cheer, you can scream, you can bring noise makers – the Net Nuts help add to that unique feel that is college tennis,” Voss said. “I think for Illinois players it is a huge advantage because you have that active motivation, someone cheering you on.”

This season, tennis matches have included everything from the entertainment of the Illini pep band to T-shirt tosses to halftime shows to a dodgeball game between the Net Nuts and the Dodging Illini.

“We have tried to make an almost circus-like atmosphere here,” said Voss.

Back at the match, the cheering crowd becomes silent for a moment as Dabir and Anderson’s final point is played, only to erupt into cheers as the pair wins the match.

Just down the bleachers from Atienza sit three freshman women with a stack of homemade and personalized posters, cheering on the Illini.

They yell, knocking the posters from the edge of the bleachers to the floor.

“We get really rowdy,” said Kim Nguyen, freshman in LAS. “It gets on the nerves of all the other players – they don’t know how to respond. I love it.”