Tennis to face first Big Ten foes in Midwest Regional

By Eric Chima

The Illinois men’s tennis team will get their first major taste of Big Ten competition Friday when they begin play at the ITA Midwest Regional in Minneapolis, an event they have dominated in recent years.

The doubles champion and two singles finalists at the regional are automatically entered into the ITA National Indoor Championships in November. The allure of that wild card bid will draw most of the Big Ten teams to the regional, including Ohio State – the defending conference champions and the only Big Ten opponent to challenge the Illini since they became a national power.

“You want to do well at any tournament, but especially with Ohio State and the Big Ten there,” assistant coach Kent Kinnear said. “It’s a good opportunity to establish ourselves.”

Last year, Marc Spicijaric and Monte Tucker won the doubles portion of the Regional over teammates Pramod Dabir and Brandon Davis. The team did not fare as well in singles, where no player made the quarterfinals.

“Singles-wise we haven’t done as well as we’d like,” Kinnear said. “We’re hoping to improve a little bit there, but it won’t be easy. Everyone’s there from the region, and they’re all trying to beat Illinois.”

The team’s two highest-ranked players, Kevin Anderson and Ryan Rowe, will not participate because they already qualified for Indoors by making the quarterfinals of the All-American Championships earlier this month.

Tucker and Dabir are gone this year, so Spicijaric will attempt to repeat his title with freshman Billy Heiser.

“They’re pretty different,” Spicijaric said. “Billy and I played a little bit in Florida, and that was probably the first time we’ve played. Billy’s got better hands up at the net, but Tuck was just a little more aggressive. They’ve both got great groundstrokes, so I think we should be fine.”

Davis will team with senior GD Jones to make up the Illini’s other doubles team. All four players will participate in the singles draw, and each could emerge from a relatively open field. Jones is the highest-ranked of the group, but he is still coming back from groin injuries he suffered last year.

“GD is back hitting a lot of balls,” Kinnear said. “He’s still in our minds not (playing) 100 percent, but he’s working at it.”

Last week Heiser upset Jones in the semifinals of a tournament in Champaign, establishing himself as a contender to repeat Spicijaric’s feat of winning the regional as a freshman.

“It’s just another tournament, I’m not really focused on whether it’s big or not,” Heiser said. “I grew up in the Midwest playing juniors here, so I know most of the guys playing in the Big Ten now.”

His partner, though, said Heiser, had yet to experience the atmosphere of a conference rivalry.

“It’s always important to get off to a good start, especially with Ohio State,” Spicijaric said. “They’re our main rivals, and Billy’s going to get a taste of how big that rivalry is. Our expectations are to win, and I don’t expect anything less than that.”