All challengers welcome on court


Former Illinois tennis player Kevin Anderson returns against Northwestern at Atkins Tennis Center on March 31, 2007. Now, the No. 122-ranked player in the world, Anderson will compete in the tournament at Atkins this weekend. Erica Magda

By Alex Iniguez

Sunday marks the beginning of the qualifying rounds of the United States Tennis Association Challenger tournament held at Atkins Tennis Center. The 2008 USTA JSM Challenger of Champaign-Urbana features three players ranked in the top 100 in the world competing against a collection of current and former Illini.

Unseating last year’s Illinois Challenger Champion Jesse Levine and runner-up Donald Young will be a tough task for the past and present Illini.

“It makes the whole experience that much more fun,” Illinois head coach Brad Dancer said.

“It’s always sort of been an unofficial reunion weekend for us, and I think that’s the best part about it.”

Topping the list of former Illini is Kevin Anderson, ranked No. 122 in singles play, who turned pro in 2007 after his junior season at Illinois. The 22-year-old South African holds an 11-11 record in singles matches on the professional circuit, highlighted by an upset of No. 3-ranked Novak Djokovic in the second round of the Sony Ericsson Open in March.

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Also worth noting on the Challenger player list is No. 111-ranked Amer Delic. The former Illini won the 2003 NCAA Singles Championship after leading the Illini to a team national title. Throughout his professional career, which began in 2003, Delic has reached as high as No. 60 in the world. In 2008, the 26-year-old Bosnian has made two Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tournament quarterfinal appearances – the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas and the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles.

Rajeev Ram rounds out the former Illini players receiving automatic entry to the main draw of the Challenger. Ram, ranked No. 193, has made two ATP tournament semifinal appearances in doubles play. Monday, Ram defeated No. 1-seeded Vince Spadea, 7-6(1), 0-6, 7-6(1), before being defeated by Michael Russell. Spadea is expected to be the No. 1 seed at the Illinois Challenger.

While at Illinois, Ram won the NCAA Doubles Championship with Brian Wilson while helping the Illini capture the team championship along with Delic.

Ruben Gonzales and GD Jones are also slated to participate in the tournament.

“I’m looking forward to seeing all the guys,” Dancer said.

“It’s going to be great to see Amer, Raj and Kevin compete and hopefully avoid each other in the draw.”

The Illinois Challenger not only offers professional players a chance to notch a win, it also gives a few current Illini an opportunity to gain valuable experience by competing with some of the world’s best players.

Freshman Dennis Nevolo won the JSM Challenger Pre-Qualifier tournament on Oct. 1 at Atkins. Nevolo ousted fellow freshman Ruan Roelofse, 3-6, 7-6, 6-3, to gain a wildcard entry into this weekend’s qualifying draw of the Challenger. As of Thursday, the other current members of the team competing in the Challenger are unknown.

Dancer said the Challenger provides a unique opportunity to the team.

“It’s the whole thing really,” Dancer said.

“It’s all about the competition against this level, the practice they get to have against this level and just watching the matches. We think of ourselves as a professionally developed program, and I think it’s a huge aspect to give these guys a taste of what it’s like at the next level.”