Tennis reaches semis of national tournament

By Amber Greviskes

CHICAGO – For the first time since 2001 the Illinois men’s tennis team did not reach the finals of the USTA/ITA National Indoor Team Championships, losing in the semifinals to an older, more experienced Baylor team.

The Bears beat the Illini 4-3 in a match that pitted the two-time defending National Indoor Team Champions (Illinois) against the 2004 NCAA Champions (Baylor). The match, which filled the Mid-Town Tennis Club with loyal fans from both Illinois and Baylor, was one of the most tightly contested of the tournament.

But Illinois dropped the doubles point and could not recover during singles.

“They did a great job in singles; they fought hard,” said Illinois head coach Craig Tiley. “If you win the doubles point, it’s a different story.”

Tiley pointed to sophomore GD Jones’ victory over Benjamin Becker as one of the team’s bright spots in its loss. Becker, a 23-year-old Baylor senior, is the defending NCAA singles champion. Eighteen-year old Jones beat him 6-4, 7-6 (4). Jones, however, found little reason to celebrate.

“It was nice to win, but in the larger picture it was meaningless,” Jones said. “I went out and played and competed, but it was not a victory.”

The Illini dug themselves into a hole after doubles, which the team has struggled with all season. Illinois lost the doubles point in the first-round match against Kentucky on Thursday night, playing what Tiley called the worst doubles matches in his years as an Illinois coach.

“There is a difference (after losing the doubles point) when you know that you have a chance and when you don’t know that you have a chance,” said Illinois freshman Kevin Anderson after the team’s match on Thursday. “And we knew that we were better fighters, so we just had to come out and prove it in the singles.”

Tiley agrees that the men performed well in singles throughout the week and remained calm under pressure. The men also showed improvement throughout the week, Tiley said, which bodes well for the future of the team.

“We’ll get better and they know that they will have to get better because we have some guys that are hungry now,” Tiley said. “They didn’t like losing tonight.”

Although the match against Baylor had been greatly anticipated, the teams’ next meeting, which would likely occur at the NCAA tournament, will have even more excitement surrounding it.

“We’ve been waiting a long time to play them,” Illinois junior Ryler DeHeart said before the teams faced each other.

DeHeart predicted that a “great, great battle” would ensue. He was right.

The contest was not only a clash between two of the best teams in college tennis today, but also a battle between youth and experience. Illinois is the youngest team in the nation, while Baylor proved it was the best in the country by defeating Virginia 4-1 on Sunday for the title.

Baylor’s roster features senior Benedikt Dorsch, who defeated DeHeart in straight sets. Dorsch at 24-years-old is significantly older than the majority of the Illini, who are 18- and 19-year-old freshmen. DeHeart, a junior, is 20.

The difference in the experience that comes with age was evident Saturday. Illinois’ singles lineup consisted of four freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. No athletes from Illinois’ singles lineup were over the age of 20.

The last match that decided the teams’ fate was contested between Illinois freshman Monte Tucker and Baylor’s Matija Zgaga. Zgaga won 7-5, 2-6, 6-4.

Despite the loss, Tiley is drawing positives from the week.

The team has proven it can play alongside some of the best athletes in the nation. Illinois defeated Kentucky 4-1 and topped Georgia, a perennial powerhouse, 4-0. Georgia has appeared in the finals of the USTA/ITA National Indoor Team Championship four times and has won numerous NCAA team, singles and doubles titles.

This tournament also exposed Illinois’ six freshmen to the highest level of competition they will face this year. Many of them responded well – Anderson is still undefeated this season, Tucker scored the winning point in Illinois’ match against Georgia and Ruben Gonzales scored the first point for Illinois against Baylor.

After falling short of their goal to be only the second team to win three consecutive National Indoor Team Championships, the Illini will be ready for their next appearance on the national stage.

DeHeart said Illinois would make a statement about what Illinois athletes are capable of accomplishing. The statement that Illinois has made is that its young team is ready to play with the best in the nation and that this is not a rebuilding year, despite the loss of three All-Americans to graduation.

“We’re not going to wait to be good, because we’re good now,” Tiley said. “We’re going to get better because we can be great.”