Men’s tennis faces tough weekend tests

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By Amber Greviskes

Today’s date has been circled on the calendars of the Illinois tennis players since their spring schedule was released.

One of the team’s most heated rivalries will be played out when No. 9 Duke enters the Atkins Tennis Center at 6 p.m. Illinois has a 6-4 edge on the Blue Devils in the teams’ 10 meetings, but this could be one of the most dramatic chapters in the rivalry yet.

“The last couple years we’ve really had their number, but they’re a good team,” said Illinois senior Evan Zeder. “They’re going to be tough to take out, but I think we’re ready for them.”

Duke’s impressive lineup features All-Americans Ludovic Walter and Jason Zimmermann. The Illini will counter with Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Indoor singles champion Ryler DeHeart and a handful of talented freshmen who are ready to make a name for themselves at the collegiate level.

“We could potentially have four or five freshmen playing in our lineup (this weekend) and the most we’ve ever had (before) is three,” said Illinois head coach Craig Tiley.

Although a strong performance from the large freshman class will be necessary for the team’s success, the men are taking the opportunity in stride. For freshman Monte Tucker, the rivalry against Duke is a continuation of a high school battle. Tucker and Duke junior Jonathan Stokke have been rivals since they began playing against each other at the Smith-Stearns Tennis Academy.

“I’m just really looking forward to getting after him,” Tucker said.

Tiley will use this weekend to gauge how his team will fare at the national level. After the match-up against the Blue Devils tonight, the Illini will face Texas on Saturday at 6 p.m.

“It’s going to be a tough weekend,” Tiley said. “I’ll know we’re a legitimate team at the beginning of the season if we manage to get out of the weekend winning both matches.”

But winning the matches will be a more daunting task than originally thought.

Illinois senior Chris Martin and junior Pramod Dabir are injured and will not be able to compete this weekend. Martin is still recovering from a stress fracture. Dabir, who was injured last weekend, is not expected back in the lineup for four to six weeks.

However, Zeder said, the Illini will still be a force to be reckoned with.

“Whether we’re banged-up or not, we’re still that same unit,” Zeder said. “We’re up to the task. Injuries or no injuries, I think we can get up for any team in the country.”

The Illinois-Texas match up promises to be exciting as well and might become one of the most heated rivalries for the next four years.

The teams are similarly structured. Illinois has six freshmen. Texas has five. Both teams won 5-2 last weekend, rallying after dropping the doubles point.

“It’s going to be a tough weekend for us mentally, playing two good teams back-to-back,” DeHeart said. “But I think that it will make us better in the end – the better the matches, the better we’ll get.”

One key to the team’s success this weekend will be the home crowd advantage. The men hope to use the support from the crowd to pump them up and gain momentum. Tiley said he expects the Illinois fans’ cheers to drown out the cheers from any loyal Duke or Texas fans who travel to Urbana-Champaign.

“I’m hoping the home crowd will be a lot bigger,” Tucker said. “I want to see them throwing down the ‘Hook ’em Horn’ sign.”

But, for now, the Illini are not thinking too far ahead.

They know that when they face Texas, the athletes’ ages will not matter, and tonight’s results will have little bearing on Saturday’s match. The Illini will simply focus on tonight.

“This could go either way,” Tiley said. “Each team is good enough to beat each other 7-0 or to be 4-3. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”