Men face final two matches on road



By Alex Iniguez

Throughout the 2008 season, the Illinois men’s tennis team has experienced triumphs such as the demolition of then-No. 12 Notre Dame and a disappointing 4-3 loss against No. 1 Virginia. However, through the course of their ups and downs, the level-headed Illini stayed focused on one thing: improving.

Following a 5-2 victory against No. 41 Indiana, No. 17-ranked Illinois (14-7, 6-2 Big Ten) has two more opportunities for improvement this weekend before the Big Ten Championships and the NCAA Tournament. The Illini will travel to Minneapolis on Friday to battle the Golden Gophers before heading to Iowa to take on the No. 53 Hawkeyes on Sunday.

“Anytime we have an away match, it’s tough,” senior Brandon Davis said.

“Iowa has improved this year and Minnesota is always tough. We’re just looking to finish strong in the regular season and take the momentum from the last two matches into the postseason.”

The Golden Gophers (5-15, 3-5) are led by senior Raoul Schwark, who is ranked No. 92 in the nation. Schwark’s signature win came against No. 57 Thomas Liversage of San Diego. Minnesota was riding a three-match win streak into last weekend before No. 34 Wisconsin blasted the Gophers 7-0. Illinois has a history of demolishing Minnesota, as the last time the Illini lost to the Gophers was more than 10 years ago.

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Although Illinois has an 11-match win streak against Iowa, Sunday’s match should be a difficult test.

The Hawkeyes (11-8, 3-5) defeated their highest-ranked opponent when they downed Indiana 4-3 on Feb 2. Illinois’ No. 8-ranked doubles tandem of senior Ryan Rowe and sophomore Billy Heiser will have its hands full with Iowa’s J.P. Ritchie and Bart van Monsjou, who are ranked No. 40. Van Monsjou also leads the Hawkeyes in singles play and is ranked No. 69.

“Both teams have been improving over the year, so these are both tough matches,” Rowe said. “I’m excited to get out there, and I’m excited to see Iowa’s new facility. I grew up playing tennis there, so we’ll just see how it goes.”

Last weekend, Illinois split its two matches, a 5-2 loss to No. 2 Ohio State and a same-score win against Indiana.

In the Ohio State match, the Illini’s bid for an upset seemed within reach, but the Buckeyes shut the door by dominating in third-set tiebreakers. Illinois then had to come back and play a feisty Hoosier team Sunday, but despite some struggles, the Orange and Blue were up to the task.

In order to have a strong postseason run, Illinois will need to continue to feed off its seniors and strengthen its doubles play. All season long, head coach Brad Dancer has pointed to his team’s play in doubles and its consistency as areas to improve on.

“We’ve got to learn from our matches,” Dancer said. “The guys believe in themselves when they play with tremendous intensity. And when we don’t play with intensity we start hoping that things are going to go well. The consistency in our tenacity is the biggest thing we’re focused on going into the weekend. I think if we improve that, we can be a dangerous team.”