DeHeart takes another step toward top-100 ranking

By Alex Iniguez

Watching 24-year-old Ryler DeHeart stare down the world’s best player on center court at the US Open, one couldn’t help but reminisce about the former Illini tennis star’s days in orange and blue.

DeHeart has always been a winner. In high school, he made the Florida State Championship in singles play in each of his four seasons, won it twice and went undefeated in his senior season. And not only was he a standout tennis player, DeHeart was no pushover in the classroom. As an honor student heading into college, DeHeart chose to attend Illinois instead of Harvard, Princeton or Brown.

DeHeart began his collegiate career right where he left off in high school. As a freshman at Illinois in 2003, he made a solid contribution to a National Championship-winning team and reached as high as No. 60 in the singles rankings. During the next three seasons, DeHeart led the Illini to a semifinal round and two Sweet 16 appearances. Before his senior season, DeHeart was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the preseason Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) rankings. When his time in Champaign-Urbana was complete, DeHeart posted a 241-74 combined record, good enough for second on Illinois’ all-time list.

Fast forward to 2008 and the US Open Qualifying Tournament, where Nicholas Monroe, Woong-Sun Jun and Diego Hartfield stood in the way of Ryler DeHeart and his first berth in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament. DeHeart topped each of the three players over the course of four days for a chance to play No. 68 Olivier Rochus of Belgium in the first round of the Open. Rochus proved to be a tough test for the Hawaiian-born DeHeart. The two battled through five long sets before the No. 261-ranked player in the world prevailed with a 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory. In the second round of the tournament, DeHeart faced world No. 1 Rafael Nadal. Despite a valiant effort from DeHeart in which he won the first three games in the third set, Nadal proved to be too much for the American.

The Spaniard eventually defeated DeHeart in three sets, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

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    Illinois head coach Brad Dancer worked with DeHeart as an Illinois assistant from 2004 to 2005 and as head coach from 2005 to 2006. Dancer was in attendance at the US Open.

    “It’s nice for him to get into his first major,” Dancer said. “And I think it’s extra-special being in the U.S. and playing the number one player in the world in a night match on (Arthur) Ashe (Court). It was a really exceptional experience for him.”

    So what’s next for DeHeart? He is working towards a top-100 ranking and consistent placement into the main draw of major tournaments.

    “Ryler’s not one to get carried away with anything,” Dancer said. “This was a great experience for him, but he’s got his sights set on being a top-100 player. He’s had some injuries over the last few years that have maybe slowed down that process a bit. He’s dead-set on being one of those players, so I don’t think anything really changes from that.”