Go-to Gonzales does it all

Donald Eggert

Donald Eggert

By Alex Iniguez

When the name Ruben Gonzales comes up in discussion, many people can rattle off some statistics or at least identify that the senior is leading the No. 17-ranked Illinois men’s tennis team to another successful season. But few people could offer a description that truly encompasses the Terre Haute, Ind., native’s personality and effect on the Illini program.

“Coaches use ‘special’ and ‘unique,’ and those are the types of words to describe Ruben Gonzales,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “He’s one of my favorite human beings, and I love the kid to death. I just wish he could get accolades every week.”

In his four-year career at Illinois, Gonzales won the 2005 Big Ten singles consolation championship and three Big Ten Player of the Week awards, in addition to being voted by the team as the player to watch in 2006. Gonzales reached a No. 10 ranking in doubles play with partner Kevin Anderson in 2007, and finished the season with a No. 37 ranking in doubles and a No. 125 ranking in singles while building a reputation as the spirit of Illinois tennis.

This season, while switching to a one-handed backhand, the 22-year-old senior is having another solid year playing at No. 1 and No. 2 singles, and teaming with senior Brandon Davis at No. 1 doubles. Davis and Gonzales even topped the No. 1 doubles team in the country in Virginia’s Somdev Devvarman and Treat Huey earlier this season.

“I’ve set some goals for myself,” Gonzales said. “And I just want to have a good time with the guys that I came in here with, get to know the new guys and have a good experience. Illinois has had a great tradition of leadership, and it’s my duty to continue that.”

Although his athletic honors are dazzling, Gonzales is arguably more impressive off the court. The senior excels in the classroom and truly fulfills the title of a student-athlete in a time when many collegiate stars are lacking on the educational front. As a freshman, Gonzales was named an Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Scholar-Athlete and followed that with an Academic All-Big Ten team selection and Illinois’ team GPA Award for the highest GPA on the roster as a sophomore. At the conclusion of his junior season, Gonzales received Illinois’ Scholar Athlete Award and nabbed another Academic All-Big Ten team selection.

“From a young age, my parents always made education a priority,” Gonzales said. “It’s kind of just a normal thing for me to do that.”

When looking at Gonzales’ achievements, one could incorrectly assume the senior accomplished them with ease. Last season, Gonzales suffered from spontaneous pneumothorax, a rare lung injury that results from a sudden collection of air in the lungs which can cause chest pain, shortness of breath and irregular respiration.

The injury kept Gonzales off the court for five dual matches during the Big Ten regular season.

He finished the season with a 14-7 record in singles matches but did not play enough matches to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in singles or doubles.

“At first it was really hard for me to swallow because it was my goal to make both the singles and the doubles tournaments,” Gonzales said. “But after that it became all about the team. That’s the way it should be, and to end it with us making the finals made up for it.”

Playing professionally is Gonzales’ career aspiration, and he is already on his way. During his junior and senior seasons, Gonzales took off the fall to compete professionally, which should make the transition to the pro game slightly smoother.

“Ever since I was 8 years old, I’ve wanted to be a professional tennis player,” Gonzales said. “And to finally begin my career is a dream for me.”

After the hectic 2007 season, Gonzales did not know if he wanted return to Illinois for the 2008 campaign. He does not regret his decision to come back and neither do the Illini, as both parties are staring at a potentially great season.

“Every time I step on the court I want to represent Illinois as best as possible,” Gonzales said. “I want to be remembered here as a guy who led by example and as a guy that people want to be like.”