Current Illini, alums off to shaky start at Illinois Challenger

By Alex Iniguez

Six current and former Illini tennis players had high hopes of earning qualifying bids at the pro circuit’s JSM Challenger in Urbana, but two had their hopes dashed by 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Ryan Rowe, a 2008 graduate, lost a grueling three-hour match against Frederic Niemeyer of Canada, 6-7 (11), 7-6 (3), 7-5.

In the first set, which lasted more than an hour, Rowe and Niemeyer battled back and forth before Rowe prevailed in the tiebreaker by a 13-11 count.

The second set featured more of the same, but Niemeyer came out on top in a much shorter tiebreaker. Tempers flared as the match wore on, with both players visibly frustrated.

“Niemeyer is a great player and obviously Rowe did a great job matching him – there were no breaks of serve until the very end of the match,” Illinois head coach Brad Dancer said. “That’s always stressful on the mind. You could see the tension escalating as the match went on.”

In the third set, Niemeyer broke his racket, slamming it on the ground after going down a break at 4-3. The Canadian bounced right back and took the next game, knotting the third-set score at four a piece.

“Rowe had that break at 4-3,” Dancer said. “Your natural tendency is to let your guard down a little bit at that point. He got broken right back, and that was unfortunate.”

Niemeyer and Rowe continued to clash until Niemeyer finally closed the door on the former Illini with an interesting shot. Serving against match point, Rowe crushed a powerful serve, which Niemeyer feebly returned. The shot tipped the net and barely fell in-bounds to end the match.

“I just hit a really good serve,” Rowe said. “(Niemeyer) didn’t even see the ball, but it just hit the top of the net and went over. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”

In a relatively shorter match, sophomore Abe Souza was defeated 6-1, 6-4 by Ramon Delgado of Paraguay. The match began after Rowe’s match and ended before it, as the St. Louis, Mo., native was clearly outmatched.

“(Abe) played a little up and down throughout the match,” Dancer said. “Delgado is a seasoned veteran, so that’s something Abe couldn’t afford to do. We saw some bright spots, though, especially in the second set.”

After a quick first set, Souza began to strike back. However, the sophomore’s efforts would not be enough to overcome Delgado’s attack.

“First set, I thought I was playing pretty well, especially if I was playing a college player,” Souza said. “I was just getting pushed around a lot, so second set I started to hit the ball a little bigger, take some chances and serve bigger. I lost my focus a bit because of that, and I let him back in.”

Four more past and present Illini also competed Sunday: Ruben Gonzales and current players Ruan Roelofse, Meedo El Tabakh and Roy Kalmanovich.

Play continues Monday in the second round of the qualifying draw.