Illini try to qualify for pro tournament

By Amber Greviskes

The members of the Illinois men’s tennis team will get a glimpse of the future this weekend when the men host the pre-qualifying tournament for the Northwestern Mutual/Wright Financial Group United States Tennis Association Challenger.

The Northwestern Mutual/Wright Financial Group USTA Challenger is a professional tennis tournament held at the Atkins Tennis Center each November, featuring some of the most talented up-and-coming tennis players from around the globe.

Many of the current Illini have professional aspirations and will begin playing in challenger and future tournaments after graduation. Several former Illini, including one of Illinois’ first doubles champions Graydon Oliver, played in last year’s challenger, reaching the tournament doubles finals. Former Illini Rajeev Ram, who was the 2003 NCAA doubles champion with teammate Brian Wilson, won the doubles tournament in 2004 with Brian Baker.

Among other notable alumni that have returned in recent years are NCAA champions Phil Stolt (team title), Amer Delic (singles title, team title), Wilson (doubles title, team title) and Michael Calkins (team title), as well as Micheal Kosta, Jeff Laski, Jamal Parker and Alex Muresan.

Although the Northwestern Mutual/Wright Financial Group USTA Challenger is in its tenth year, this is the first time the Illini have hosted a prequalifying event in recent history.

Illinois Head Coach Brad Dancer said he expects to see top-level collegiate athletes enter the prequalifying tournament this weekend, although, Dancer said, anyone who is willing to pay the $30 entry fee can enter the tournament.

Six members of the Illinois team are slated to compete in the prequalifying tournament.

Illinois senior Pramod Dabir said the Illini are excited to compete at home again in front of their usually boisterous fans.

The Illini are also looking forward to getting in more matches before the spring season begins in January.

“This time of year, (more matches are) what we need,” Dabir said. “We just need to get more matches under our belts.”

Although the men will gain experience from the weekend, earning a place in the qualifying round of the challenger is a primary concern as well.

Only one individual from the tournament will win a wild card into the qualifying tournament for the Northwestern Mutual/Wright Financial Group USTA Challenger.

“It’ll be a tough competition,” Dancer said.

Dancer expects that several of the Illini might have to compete against each other this weekend as well, which he said will make for an interesting competition.

“Those aren’t easy circumstances, having to play your teammate with something on the line, ” Dancer said.

However, by structuring the tournament this way, Dancer also has a hidden agenda. He said he knows that on any day, any one of the Illini in the tournament has the potential to beat any of his teammates. He said he feels the tournament will be a way to “eliminate pecking order.”

He said he feels that if the men all have to play against each other, they will realize that they are all capable of competing well against – and with – each other. Once each of the athletes realize their potential, Dancer said, the team will only get better.

At the end of last season, the Illini were the No. 6 team in the nation, after losing in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships to Florida State at Texas A & M.

“The best team we have is a bunch of guys that all want to play No. 1 singles,” Dancer said.