Illini to face top tennis team

By Amber Greviskes

Illinois is young, inexperienced and eager to start the tennis season.

On Saturday the Illini begin their season at the Atkins Tennis Center at 6 p.m. when they host Ball State. They also host No.1 Virginia on Sunday.

Ball State is the No. 68 team in the country, featuring the No. 4 doubles tandem of reigning Mid-American Conference Player of the Week Matt Baccarani and senior partner Patrick Thompson.

Illinois’ doubles teams are “very unproven,” said Illinois head coach Brad Dancer. Senior Ryler DeHeart, the nation’s No. 7 singles player, said the Illini are not intimidated.

“It’s always good to be tested early on to know where we stand,” DeHeart said.

The most intense match of the season could unfold on Sunday at noon when No.1 Virginia comes to town.

“I wouldn’t be going out on a ledge saying that we are a better team than they are,” DeHeart said. “But it’s going to come down to who executes on that day.”

Virginia capped a 27-3 campaign last year with a trip to the NCAA tournament where they lost in the quarterfinals – the best finish in the program’s history – to eventual NCAA champion UCLA.

The Cavaliers are led by six seniors, who have returned from last year’s team, including two-time All-American Doug Stewart. Virginia also boasts a strong sophomore class in No. 6 Treat Huey and No. 10 Somdev Devvarman.

“Doug Stewart is a very dangerous player,” said Illinois head coach Brad Dancer, who knows Stewart’s ability to neutralize strong serves could be problematic for the Illini. “But we won’t play scared of him.”

Unlike the Illini, Virginia will have already played five matches by the time the teams meet, including wins over USC, VCU and Minnesota. Illinois, although not match-tested, should be fresher than Virginia.

“It’s a bit of a disadvantage for us, which is good, because we need some obstacles to overcome,” Dancer said.

One challenge the Cavaliers will face that they might not be expecting is the Illini’s home crowd. The boisterous crowd, led by the ‘Net Nuts,’ the premier college tennis student cheering section, will lend itself to the already intense environment, said Illinois sophomore Brandon Davis.

“It’s a big advantage to have that home atmosphere,” Davis said. “We have such a big fan base.”

The fans will be crucial when the untested Illini take the court this weekend, but the athletes are optimistic that they have the ability to win their matches this weekend.

“I feel that this team should beat Virginia where we are right now,” DeHeart said.