Illinois men’s tennis primed for another successful season

By Alex Iniguez

After its seventh straight Sweet 16 appearance last season, the Illinois men’s tennis team is eager to return to dual match play. The Illini ended the 2008 season ranked No. 15 and opened 2009 in the same spot. Since then, three players have graduated, while two freshmen and two transfers have joined the program.

“It really feels like a long time since we’ve played a dual match,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s funny that we do all this stuff all year long and we’re going and going and going. And now, it’s been a little bit of a reality check these last few days. It’s like, ‘Hey, this is why we do that all year long.'”

The Orange and Blue begin the season Friday with a doubleheader against Toledo and Ball State before two straight rematches from last season. Saturday, the Illini host No. 14 Pepperdine. Last year, No. 15 Pepperdine took down Illinois by a 4-3 margin in Malibu, Calif.

After clashing with Pepperdine, the Illini will travel to Charlottesville, Va., to challenge No. 5 Virginia. Last season, the Cavaliers defeated Illinois in a wild match. After winning the doubles point, the Illini could not hold on for victory in front of 1,200 fans at the Atkins Tennis Center and ultimately dropped a heartbreaker, 4-3.

“We play those schools on our schedule every year,” Dancer said. “And obviously, we have a lot of respect for their coaching staffs and players. Virginia was No. 1 all year last year, and Pepperdine won the title two years before that. For us, we don’t look so much at these matches as avenging losses. It’s just exciting to play that caliber of teams, and I think anyone that comes out to see the match on Saturday will really enjoy it.”

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    In Big Ten play, the Illini will try to reverse last year’s 5-2 loss at the hands of Wisconsin and defeat another heated rival, No. 1 Ohio State. Last season, Illinois lost three times to the Buckeyes. Dancer has claimed victory over the men from Columbus, Ohio, just once in his tenure with the program.

    Helping Dancer out this season are two freshmen, Dennis Nevolo and Ruan Roelofse, and two transfers, Meedo El Tabakh and Brian Livingston. Also contributing from the start will be sophomore Roy Kalmanovich, who was ineligible until midway through the 2008 season. Livingston, a senior, graduated early from Northern Illinois and transferred to Illinois to use up his last year of eligibility on the tennis courts at Atkins. After logging three seasons at the No. 1 position in DeKalb, Ill., Livingston will provide the Illini with a wealth of experience on the roster in 2009.

    “The guys are still feeling each other out a little bit,” Dancer said. “The reality of it is that the guys did some good things this fall – nobody really lit the world on fire. We’re going to have maybe four or five new guys out there playing in any given match. It’ll be interesting to see how we respond to that.”