Freshmen lead team

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By Amber Greviskes

The Illinois men’s tennis team was younger and less experienced than No. 9 Duke, but it didn’t matter Friday night when the teams clashed at the Atkins Tennis Center.

The Illini defeated Duke Friday night before beating Texas on Saturday. Illinois won both matches 5-2.

“At the very beginning we told our players we are young and a little inexperienced,” said Illinois head coach Craig Tiley. “But all we wanted them to do was come out and fight, fight, fight, and they did it.”

The Illini won the doubles point to secure a one-point lead, but Duke quickly caught up when Ludovic Walter defeated Illinois junior Ryler DeHeart 6-2, 6-2. Illinois and Duke exchanged points the rest of the night before Illinois freshman Ruben Gonzales put the Illini up 3-2. Freshman Monte Tucker then sealed the victory for the Illini, defeating Duke senior All-American Jason Zimmermann 6-3, 6-4 to give Illinois a 4-2 edge.

“(Zimmermann) tried to get into my head a little bit, but I just listened to Craig (Tiley) and kept doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Tucker said. “I was pretty nervous, but I just stayed focused and kept hitting the ball and I knew that I’d be okay – I was playing too good not to be.”

As the pressure throughout the match mounted, Tiley said he knew the Illini could depend on Tucker.

“(Tucker) loves to compete,” Tiley said. “He loves the moment – he loves the pressure.”

The urgency to win the singles matches Friday night was evident. However, it was the underclassmen in the lineup who responded the best. The three freshmen who were playing singles – Kevin Anderson, Gonzales and Tucker – as well as sophomore GD Jones each won their singles matches, guaranteeing an Illinois victory.

“Just to get through was good – straight sets, three sets – it doesn’t really matter,” Gonzales said, who defeated Charles Brezac 6-1, 6-4. “My teammates (who) were watching me helped me get through, especially in the second set when it got tough.”

The freshmen continued to impact the injury-plagued Illinois team throughout the weekend. Junior Pramod Dabir and senior Chris Martin are recovering from injuries and are unable to compete, which changed Tiley’s lineup significantly, especially in doubles.

Anderson joined DeHeart at the No. 1 position in doubles. Freshman Ryan Rowe, who was cleared to compete by the NCAA last week, joined Jones at the No. 2 position. Usually Jones and DeHeart compete at the No. 1 spot.

“It was interesting because we’ve only practiced together once,” Anderson said. “So I focused on doing the things that I could control like making returns and first serves.”

Rowe said he was excited to compete for the Illini and happy he could help the team out. He won both his doubles matches over the weekend and defeated Texas’ Hubert Chodkiewicz on Saturday, in his only singles match over the weekend.

“I didn’t know exactly what to think,” Rowe said about finding out that he had been cleared to compete. “But I was just excited to be out here and was ready to play some tennis. I was a little nervous, but I knew that if I worked hard that it would work out in the end.”

Although the match against Duke was intense, DeHeart said the members of the tennis team knew that the match against Texas would be well-fought as well.

“Going into it (Saturday night) we knew we had to fight harder and execute better than we did (against Duke),” DeHeart said. “Texas is a stronger team – as far as competitive edge – beating Duke going in gave us some momentum.”