No. 13 tennis set to play in Indoors

Freshman Dennis Nevolo returns a serve in a doubles match against Tennessee on Saturday at the Atkins Tennis Center. The Illini lost to Tennessee but are heading to Indoor Championships in Chicago. Erica Magda

Freshman Dennis Nevolo returns a serve in a doubles match against Tennessee on Saturday at the Atkins Tennis Center. The Illini lost to Tennessee but are heading to Indoor Championships in Chicago. Erica Magda

By Alex Iniguez

It’s only fitting that the No. 13 Illinois men’s tennis team’s biggest win of the season came at a time when the team needed momentum the most – heading into the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Men’s Indoor Championships in Chicago.

After defeating No. 7 Florida in thrilling fashion on Tuesday, the Illini (5-2) are set to play their highest-ranked opponent so far this season, No. 4 UCLA (5-0).

“Going into Indoors, this team needed a little momentum,” head coach Brad Dancer said after the Florida match.

“I hope that this victory will give us that.”

The Bruins fly into Chicago with an impressive resume at the Indoor Championships that features seven titles and 10 finals appearances – second only to Stanford’s 12 and 16, respectively.

UCLA topped No. 72 South Alabama and No. 40 Fresno State in qualifying play to advance to Chicago. As the host institution of the Indoor Championships, Illinois received an automatic bid. The Bruins are led by junior Matt Brooklyn, ranked No. 67, and No. 78 Nick Meister, a sophomore, in singles play.

“People have been talking about UCLA all year long,” Dancer said.

“You know, how good they are and how deep they are. It’ll be a huge challenge for us.”

The Bruins are undefeated, but the highest ranked opponent they have played is No. 30 Boise State. The Illini have played four teams ranked higher than No. 30, including three top-10 teams.

“We feel like we belong in that upper echelon,” Dancer said.

“We gotta get some wins. I think our team is pretty good, but we haven’t played to that level. We’re not there yet. We can play better than we’re playing. (Billy) Heiser can play significantly better, and Abe Souza hasn’t gotten a look yet. And everything I see about Abe, I really like. He hasn’t gotten a shot yet, and I know he’s right there.”

The upper half of the 16-team bracket features three teams the Orange and Blue have already played this season, and Florida is in the bottom half of the bracket. A win in the first round could set up a potential second-round battle with No. 5 Virginia, a team that defeated the Illini, 6-1, last month. The wealth of experience against teams featured in the Indoor Championship field can only help Illinois prepare for its 13th straight appearance in the tournament.

“We just have more confidence coming out against these teams a second time,” freshman Dennis Nevolo said.

The Illini will need to continue to receive exceptional efforts from Nevolo, senior Marc Spicijaric and junior Marek Czerwinski in order to succeed this weekend.

Nevolo, ranked No. 41, put the nail in the coffin against Florida with a three-set thriller against Carlos Cueto, while Czerwinski handily defeated No. 63 Joseph Burkhardt, improving to 6-0 in singles play this season. No. 101 Spicijaric rolled against Florida’s Antoine Benneteau, 6-2, 6-3, after winning two three-set matches against No. 36 Duke and No. 8 Tennessee last weekend.

“I know UCLA is a really talented team,” Spicijaric said.

“The doubles point is going to be very important there. Hopefully our crowd support will be great, and I know we’re going to go out and compete as hard as we can, so hopefully that will get us through.”