Illinois men’s tennis optimistic about upcoming matches

By Brian Atlas

Illinois men’s tennis coach Brad Dancer has a simple philosophy when determining who to schedule for opponents.

“We play the best all the time, no matter what,” Dancer said. “It gives the guys opportunities and allows them to rise to the occasion.”

Illinois will host the University of Alabama, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Miami in Olympia Fields, Ill., at the Olympia Fields Country Club clay courts from Sept. 14-16. The Illini, the Fighting Irish, the Crimson Tide and the Hurricanes finished No. 5, No. 6, No. 14 and No. 38, respectively, in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s final 2007 poll.

The Fighting Illini Intercollegiate Invitational is the only Division I contest that uses clay courts. The Invitational will be a round robin format for singles and doubles. Dancer said that each participant will compete in about four singles and three doubles matches.

“I’m pretty excited to get out there and show (the opponents) what we’re made of,” said Ryan Rowe, a 2006-07 singles and doubles All-American.

Because of the quality of the opponents, Rowe sees that there is an opportunity to acquire ranked victories. Those ultimately will help the rankings going into the spring season.

Additionally, Rowe likes the idea of competing in challenging matches to boost up his own skill level.

Junior Marc Spicijaric agrees with Rowe and personally believes that the challenges right off the bat can let a team know exactly where it is.

“(The difficult matches) are great for us,” Spicijaric said. “Hard matches are tough to come by, especially early on in the season . If we (do not do well), then we’ll know that we need to pick up our level of training and our level of commitment.”

The 5-foot-10 Spicijaric, who tied for the most wins on last year’s team with former teammate Kevin Anderson at 32 singles victories, wanted to take advantage of the loaded invitational.

But he cannot.

Spicijaric said he suffered a groin injury about a week ago. He will still travel with the team and hopes to start practicing later in the weekend. Dancer noted that he wants Spicijaric to have a doctor look at the injury again and then to “just go from there.”

“The thing that’s disappointing for (Spicijaric) is clay is one of his strongest surfaces,” Dancer said. “He’s really, really good on clay.”

Dancer believes that Spicijaric could have gone 4-0 in the singles competitions against highly accomplished opponents. His future ranking would have potentially risen drastically, and he’d be more recognized.

“It’s the only tournament played on clay,” Dancer said. “From an opportunity standpoint, it’s a big loss . for him. But that happens.”

Amid a clear blue sky on Tuesday, Spicijaric looked on as other tennis teammates participated in an unofficial team workout at the clay courts in preparation for the weekend’s invitational. Rowe was volleying with a teammate using his left hand on the second court.

Just before, Rowe was with the rest of the team listening to Dancer describe exactly what he expects for the invitational. Dancer emphasized that in doubles, the server should feel like he is in control of the game. He also wants his players to isolate opponents’ weaknesses.

Finally, Dancer told his players whether they’re winning 6-0 or seem to be in an impossible situation, they should always “stay in the moment.”

After Dancer’s speech, Rowe, wearing an orange hat and his Nike socks pulled up to his shins, went to the second court. This is when teammates compete against each other.

Rowe believes that the early, competitive invitational is going to be good for his teammates, especially the freshmen.

“The (freshmen) can use the experience to get a feel for what playing will be like,” Rowe said. “They can use the experience to get a feel for what things will be like.”

The freshmen, and the Illini team in general, will have their hands full, as the invitational boasts seven players ranked in the top 100 in the ITA preseason tennis poll. Rowe is a friend of Notre Dame’s Sheeva Parbhu, who is ranked No. 30. Also, Alabama has No. 42 Billy Mertz, and the Hurricanes have No. 19 All-American Dani Vallverdu.

Rowe and Spicijaric say other leaders for the Illini have been stepping up, like seniors Brandon Davis and Ruben Gonzales.

The senior who is expected to do the most, based on preseason rankings, is Rowe. He has a No. 9 national ranking. But Rowe does not want to let preseason rankings affect the way he thinks or plays. He intends to use such a strategy this weekend.

“What I really find out is preseason rankings don’t mean much,” Rowe said. “You go out there and anybody can beat anybody. (I) just try to get better and play the guy that is across the net from me.”