Rowe qualifies for Challenger tourney

By Eric Chima

Ryan Rowe defeated Billy Heiser in a battle of Illini teammates Tuesday to defend his title in the pre-qualifying tournament for the Atkins Tennis Center’s professional Challenger.

Rowe’s victory earned the junior an automatic wildcard bid into the Challenger’s qualifying rounds, where he will attempt to earn a spot in the main draw of the professional tournament. Last year, Rowe used his bid to advance in the qualifier before falling to professional Jeremy Wurtzman, a former Ohio State standout.

The day before the tournament began, Rowe soundly defeated Heiser in a practice match. But in the final, the freshman Heiser became the first player all tournament to take a set from Rowe.

“In practice it’s a lot different from a match when there’s something on the line,” Rowe said. “Billy came out today and played really tough.”

Displaying the high-quality tennis that let him top Illinois senior GD Jones in the semifinals, Heiser recovered from an early break to take the second set 6-3. He hung with Rowe throughout the other sets, too, even breaking Rowe when he served for the first at 5-4. But the elder player was still the superior, breaking serve four times to retain his title.

“They were having great points, playing at a really high level,” assistant coach Kent Kinnear said.

Coming into the tournament, Rowe’s spot in the Challenger’s qualifying draw was uncertain. Because he has no pro tour points, his status for the tournament would have depended on how many professionals signed up for the event.

Heiser will have to wait and see, now. Kinnear said he was hopeful the Illini would have several players make it in, but beyond Rowe and Kevin Anderson, who has plenty of pro tour points, everything is speculation.

But for the freshman, the tournament was a big step forward. Heiser said he played some of the best tennis of his life against Jones in the semifinals, then nearly defeated his even more highly-ranked teammate for the championship.

His hot streak leads into to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Midwest Regionals this weekend, where the individual Illini will attempt to qualify for the ITA National Indoor Tournament. Rowe and Anderson have already qualified, leaving the field open in an event the Illini have traditionally dominated.

Rowe will look ahead to Indoors and to the Challenger Nov. 11, where he could pick up his first pro tour points. Like any professional tournament, though, the Challenger will feature a different caliber of opponents from the ones Rowe dominated this weekend.

“The qualifying for a Challenger always has some tough players,” Rowe said. “I’m looking forward to going out there and playing relaxed, trying to do better than last year. It’s going to be an enjoyable experience.”