Tennis faces Midwest’s best

Illinois sophomore Ryan Rowe hits a return during practice Sept. 13 at the Atkins Tennis Center. Nick Kohout

Illinois sophomore Ryan Rowe hits a return during practice Sept. 13 at the Atkins Tennis Center. Nick Kohout

By Amber Greviskes

Tradition is on the Illini’s side this weekend when the men’s tennis team competes in the Wilson/Intercollegiate Tennis Association Midwest Men’s Regional Championships.

Last season, senior Ryler DeHeart claimed the Midwest Regional title. DeHeart and junior GD Jones won the doubles title to earn a trip to the ITA National Indoor Championships. The singles finalists and the doubles champion from each region advance to the National Indoor Championships.

In 2004, DeHeart became only the second unseeded player in the last 10 years of the ITA National Indoor Championships to win the singles title. He has already qualified for the National Indoor Championships in November, so he will not try to defend his Midwest Regional title this weekend.

Although DeHeart will not compete in the tournament this year, Illinois head coach Brad Dancer said he expects the Illini to maintain their status at the top of the region.

“For the last so many years, we’ve been the best in the Midwest,” Dancer said. “And we’re not going to relinquish that role without a battle.”

Illinois will look to senior Pramod Dabir for leadership this weekend. He is the lone upperclassman out of the six men making the trip to the Varsity Tennis Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Sophomore Brandon Davis began competition yesterday, trying to qualify into the main draw of the tournament. He won his first-round qualifying match in straight sets 6-3, 6-4 over Minnesota’s Sion Wilkins.

“It was an OK start to the tournament, but tomorrow there are a couple things that I can do better,” Davis said.

Davis enjoyed Dancer’s undivided attention during his first day of competition. He said he like being able to have the coach watchi his match and analyze what he was doing well or what he could improve on.

Only eight men who began qualifying competition will earn spots in Saturday’s event.

“There will be a lot of good competition there, and we just need to go and make a statement to the country that we’re still a top team,” Dabir said.

Although the competition will feature teams from various conferences, the Illini expect to get a glimpse of what the Big Ten season holds in store. Dancer said that he and assistant coach Kent Kinnear will use this opportunity to see where the rest of the Big Ten conference stands.

Davis said he was able to get a taste of the Big Ten competition yesterday and believes that this season could turn out to be a challenging one.

The majority of the Big Ten teams, including last year’s Big Ten Tournament runner-up Ohio State and Michigan, which finished third in the regular season conference standings, will be represented this weekend.

Although Illinois will not bring its entire team, don’t expect the Illini, who will be without DeHeart, Jones and sophomore All-American Kevin Anderson, who are both injured, to miss a beat.

“We’re going to see which one of our boys is ready to step up,” Dancer said. “It’s just another opportunity – that’s all it is.”

Illinois freshman Marc Spicijaric might be that person.

“I just have to go in and take it one point at a time,” Spicijaric said. “I just have to execute my game.”

Davis said he is looking forward to the rest of the team’s arrival in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“Everyone meshes together, working toward the same goal,” Davis said. “We’re just trying to get our job done.”

Although both Davis and Spicijaric are well aware of the tennis team’s history of success at the tournament, Spicijaric said he is not putting any additional pressure on himself. However, he said, he also recognizes that many view this tournament as a preview of the spring season and a way to gauge how successful individual athletes could be. For many coaches, it is also a way to mark individual improvements since the previous spring.

“The tradition means a lot,” Spicijaric said. “I feel like I have to go there and not only represent myself, but also represent the school and make a statement.”