Veteran squad gears up for ’08



By Jim Shay

The air in Atkins Tennis Center is thick with anticipation this week as the men’s tennis team awaits the start of team competition against visiting Ball State.

Friday will bring the Illini’s first team match since falling to No. 1 Georgia in last year’s NCAA team championships. All but two players return to the lineup for head coach Brad Dancer, who also welcomes a heralded group of freshman newcomers.

Though the team ended last year on a decidedly sour note, the loss in the championship game has sparked a new sense of urgency for players and coaches alike.

Senior Ryan Rowe and his teammates see the matchup with the Cardinals as the first step in retracing their way back to the championship game.

“Ever since I got back to school I’ve been thinking about our first match,” Rowe said. “We’re all really excited to get out there and compete.”

The Illini open the season as the No. 8-ranked team in the country. Ball State has not cracked the rankings since they were No. 75 in January 2007.

A powerhouse match up with No. 1 Virginia on Jan. 25 looms, but the team must be careful not to look past its home opener.

“We have a motto this year,” sophomore Billy Heiser said. “We don’t want to be under-prepared, we’d rather be too prepared. So, we’re going to work extra hard for every single match. We’ve got Ball State this Friday, and that’s what we’re thinking about right now.”

Heiser, Illini dominate field at ASU Invitational

Just one weekend into the new spring season the men’s tennis team is already accumulating conference accolades.

Heiser’s perfect performance at the ASU Invitational last weekend earned him this season’s first Big Ten Player of the Week award.

A flawless 6-0 record included two doubles wins with teammate Rowe, as the pair went on to be named the champions of the tournament’s doubles bracket.

The two Illini comprise the No. 34-ranked doubles tandem in the nation and are manufacturing promising results at this early stage of the season.

“We’ve played a lot before,” Heiser said. “We played at regionals (in the fall), and we just had fun out there. (Rowe) likes to finish points up because he’s a big guy, and I like to finesse the ball more and set him up to finish. That just makes a good combo.”

A number of higher seeded opponents were dethroned by Illini players, who racked up 10 total wins in the singles and doubles draws.

Rowe and fellow senior Ruben Gonzales sent Texas’ No. 14-ranked duo of Kellen Damico and Louis Diaz Barriga packing with an 8-4 decision.

Highlighting Heiser’s day was a singles upset of the No. 24 Damico, 6-7 (6), 7-5, 10-7.

“We battled back from being down in a lot of matches,” Dancer said. “It was the same thing we did at NCAA’s last year. We have a little bit of consistency now, but we’re out there together. I think the guys are starting to believe in their ability to respond.”

Delic reaches second round of Australian Open

The Illini tennis program has recently experienced impressive efforts overseas. After fighting their way through the qualifying rounds, former players Amer Delic, Rajeev Ram and Kevin Anderson reached the main draw at this year’s Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia.

While Ram and Anderson were eliminated after dropping their respective first-round matches, Delic rolled over the U.S.’s Robert Kendrick, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 to qualify for the second round of play.

The victory sets up a Thursday face off between Delic and Juan Monaco, the No. 23-ranked player in the world.

“I played (Juan Monaco) last year on clay,” Delic said in a press release. “I had a touch outing then, but I am just going to be looking to use my serve to my advantage, and I should be OK.”

It was the first career appearance in a Grand Slam main draw for Anderson, who was a key member of last year’s NCAA finalist team.