UI welcomes pro tennis starts

Amer Delic volleys during the Wright Financial/NW Mutual Financial Challenger at the Atkins Tennis Center on Nov. 17, 2004. Daily Illini File Photo

Amer Delic volleys during the Wright Financial/NW Mutual Financial Challenger at the Atkins Tennis Center on Nov. 17, 2004. Daily Illini File Photo

By Amber Greviskes

Seasoned professionals and top up-and-coming tennis stars will grace the courts of the Atkins Tennis Center this weekend, when the Illini host the 2005 United States Tennis Association Challenger of Champaign-Urbana.

For die-hard tennis fans, the tournament, which is in its tenth year, features many top-ranked players including defending singles champion Justin Gimelstob and Bobby Reynolds, who reached the third round of the Australian Open in January.

The tournament’s qualifying rounds begin at 10 a.m. tomorrow. The main draw – which will also feature four men who were part of the Illinois team that won the NCAA title in 2003, including Amer Delic, Ryler DeHeart, Rajeev Ram and Brian Wilson – will begin Monday.

“Illinois tennis will be well represented in the tournament, which is exciting for the fans,” said tournament director Jim Tressler.

The current members of the men’s tennis team are excited to have their former teammates back in town, too.

“It’s good to get the guys in and reunite the team,” DeHeart said.

DeHeart, who received a wildcard into the main draw for the second consecutive year, hopes to improve on last year, when lost to Gimelstob in the first round of the tournament.

“It was tough to play him in the first round last year,” DeHeart said. “At the same time, it was a good experience and (I learned) how much practice it takes to get to the next level.”

Throughout the week, the current Illini will get a sneak peek at what their future could look like.

Many of the men have aspirations of playing on the professional tour. DeHeart said it is inspirational to see his former teammates succeed, knowing he has the chance to following in their footsteps.

“It’s fun to talk to the guys and learn about the things that go around behind the scenes – it’s encouraging to see them playing well,” DeHeart said. “We talk a lot about what they’ve gone through and get the inside scoop.”

Although the years the men compete on the pro circuit are very different than when they are in college, there are few other differences in their playing styles. The men playing on the pro circuit are more advanced and have had time to hone their skills.

“They do many of the same things we do, but they do the little things that we do a lot better,” Illini sophomore Ruben Gonzales said.

Among the differences that many notice between the professional and collegiate athletes is the mental and emotional state the professionals have when they approach matches, Gonzales said.

And, although the current members of the men’s tennis team benefit from the professionals being on campus, the former Illini are excited about being able to return to Champaign-Urbana as well.

Ram, albeit only at Illinois for a year, has followed the careers of his former teammates. He keeps in touch with several of the current members of the team and said he still follows their careers.

He also said he is excited about the chance to compete in front of the Illinois fans who followed his career. There is also an additional incentive to playing in college towns, Ram said, because the majority of the fans are similar to his own age.

This year, however, there are higher expectations for Ram. He is a favorite to repeat as the tournament’s doubles champion.

“There is definitely a higher expectation that I have put on myself, especially in the singles tournament,” Ram said. “I’m a contender for the title – not a favorite (in singles) – but I’m definitely a contender.”

The former Illini’s chances for success are not the only reason there is excitement surrounding the tournament, Tressler said. Being able to watch the men’s progress since they have left Illinois is also rewarding.

“It’s special because you see them in a different light,” Tressler said. “You see their maturity now, and you know that somehow their experience at the University of Illinois – and with Illinois tennis – shaped them.”