DeHeart makes history

By Amber Greviskes

Ryler DeHeart was a freshman fighting for a spot in Illinois’ lineup when the men’s tennis team won the 2003 NCAA team title.

Last season, he finished with a season-high No. 44 ranking.

This year he has come into his own – winning the singles title at the 2004 Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Indoor Championships on Sunday. He became the first Illini to win the tournament, defeating Kentucky’s Jesse Witten 6-1, 6-4.

“It’s a great feeling to finish the tournament strong – it was a long tournament,” DeHeart said. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Illinois associate head coach Brad Dancer is proud of DeHeart’s accomplishments.

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“First, this is just a great accomplishment for Ryler,” Dancer said. “But it is also a testament to the developmental aspects of the program.”

DeHeart is only the second unseeded player in the last 10 years to win the singles title. He defeated four top-60 players on the way to the championship – including fourth-seeded Pedro Rico of Pepperdine and third-seeded Witten.

DeHeart said his match strategy did not change because he was unseeded. Being the underdog in almost all of his matches, he believes, might have been to his advantage because he was more relaxed.

“For me, being unseeded was not really relevant – I didn’t know that I was unseeded, I just assumed I was,” he said. “I just focused on going after it.”

That focus proved critical throughout the tournament. Three of DeHeart’s matches went to three sets, forcing him to fight for every point. The final match was also a test because, DeHeart said, Witten was very relaxed entering the tournament and has a huge forehand.

“(Witten) doesn’t show you how much he wants to win, so you have to draw your own intensity,” DeHeart said. “You have to be aggressive from the first point.”

DeHeart attributed part of his success to former Illinois athletes, who have helped build the tennis program.

“It’s not like we’ve been far off (from winning the tournament),” DeHeart said. “It’s good to finally win it.”

Former Illinois standout Amer Delic advanced to the tournament finals in 2002. Baylor’s Benedikt Dorsch defeated Delic 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-0 that year. Delic later avenged that loss by defeating Dorsch to win the 2003 NCAA singles title.

Another factor that contributed to his success was the familiar environment at the Michigan Varsity Tennis Center. In October, DeHeart became only the second Illini to win the ITA Midwest Regional in Ann Arbor. He and sophomore GD Jones won the regional title too. It was the first time Illinois won both the singles and doubles title at a regional tournament.

The familiar setting did not help Illinois’ doubles performance.

DeHeart and Jones lost to Stanford’s duo of KC Corkery and Sam Warburg 8-4 during Friday’s competition. Corkery and Warburg, the 2004 NCAA doubles champions, lost in the finals to Ohio State’s Scott Green and Ross Wilson.

“They were not sharp at all in that match, and Corkery and Warburg are really going to make you pay if you’re not playing your best,” Dancer said.

Although the Illini did not capitalize in doubles, DeHeart kept the Big Ten’s stronghold on the singles title intact. He is the second consecutive athlete from the Big Ten to win the singles title at the ITA National Indoor Championships. Ohio State’s Jeremy Wurtzman won last year. In 2001, Minnesota’s Harsh Mankad won the title. Before Mankad’s 2001 victory, a Big Ten athlete had not appeared in the finals since 1989.

Dancer said the recent success of the Big Ten could be partially attributed to Illinois head coach Craig Tiley’s ability to bring in high-caliber athletes. Other schools have been forced to recruit athletes with similar profiles.

The men’s and women’s doubles champions -Green and Wilson and Northwestern’s Audra Cohen and Cristelle Grier – also hail from the Big Ten.

“Not to boast, but the Big Ten conference’s success is a testament to Craig Tiley,” Dancer said. “He is setting a new standard within the Big Ten.”