Tennis set to square off in Big Ten home opener



By Alex Iniguez

Following a 6-1 loss to Florida last week, Illinois men’s tennis head coach Brad Dancer described his team’s play bluntly.

“Some teams can have weaknesses in some spots and be strong enough in other spots to overcome those weaknesses,” Dancer said. “We did not perform the way we needed to perform.

“We stayed competitive and stayed in there, but that’s not how you win tennis matches. You go out from the beginning and play hard.”

Fortunately, No. 13 Illinois (5-4) will have two chances to recover this weekend when it takes on No. 65 Michigan State on Friday and No. 12 Notre Dame on Saturday.

Big Ten play opens Friday, with the Illini battling a confident Michigan State team. Led by seniors Adam Monich and Nick Rinks, the Spartans (11-3) ride a four-match winning streak to Urbana. The Illini will have their hands full with the dangerous pair, as Monich is 12-1 in singles play, while Rinks is 11-1. Together, the No. 21-ranked duo boasts an 8-0 record at No. 1 doubles.

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“They’ve got some very skilled players that have not performed as well as they could,” Dancer said. “Rinks and Monich are both guys with great skills, big serves and big games. The matches against those guys will be the key matches for us because they’re the heart and soul of that team. If we can beat them at their heart and soul, I think that’s going to be important for us.”

Without a doubt, the heart and soul of the Illini this season lies in No. 77 Ruben Gonzales (5-6) and No. 13 Ryan Rowe (15-11). Gonzales and Rowe both lost in singles contests at Florida, but the seniors are focused heading into Big Ten play.

“It’s one of our goals this year to be Big Ten Champions,” Gonzales said. “We haven’t done that since my freshman year (in 2005). That’s definitely a big goal for us, and it feels like a good time to start.”

Illinois has won its last 10 meetings with MSU dating back to 1998 and leads the all-time series 47-29. The Illini dominated last year, winning 7-0 in East Lansing, Mich.

Despite his age, freshman Abe Souza knows what Big Ten play means to the team. Souza will be playing in his fifth and sixth dual matches of the season this weekend and knows his performance is not far off from where it should be.

“Winning the Big Ten is always important to this team,” Souza said. “We just have to get off to a good start this weekend. People that were watching me at Florida said that it looked like I was dominating almost every point. The difference was finishing, but I think that’s something that comes with match experience.”

After Friday’s bout with the Spartans, the Illini will face a tough nonconference opponent Saturday. Notre Dame (9-3) looks to be another tough test for Illinois in a season filled with them, as the Fighting Irish have only lost to No. 1 Virginia, No. 6 UCLA and No. 8 North Carolina. In addition, Notre Dame is 5-0 against Big Ten foes this season, including two wins over No. 34 Penn State. Leading the way for the Irish are No. 32 Brett Helgeson, who is 7-3 on the season, and the tandem of Helgeson and Sheeva Parbhu, which has combined for an 8-4 record at No. 1 doubles.

The Illini are excited to return home this weekend. The match with Michigan State marks just the second time this month that Illinois will play a match at Atkins Tennis Center.

“We’re looking forward to playing at home,” Dancer said. “We really want to have good crowds. Our guys play well in front of big crowds.”