Illinois men’s tennis team has international flavor

Illinois’ Aleks Vukic returns the ball in the match against TCU at the Atkins Tennis Center on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016

By Mike Gasick

Professional tennis players Kevin Anderson and Amer Delic have a combined 256 singles wins between them.

Delic graduated from Illinois with both a team and individual championship under his belt, and Anderson capped off his Illinois career as a three-time All-American in singles.

The two were international athletes, a trend that has held steady with the Illinois men’s tennis program since they left. Anderson, a South African citizen, and Delic, a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, both made the commitment to continue playing the game they love overseas.

The 2016 Illini have three international athletes who have impressed head coach Brad Dancer with how far they have progressed this season.

Aleks Vukic

Sophomore Aleks Vukic grew up in Sydney, Australia. He graduated high school in the Australian summer — which is American winter — of 2013-14.

He was offered scholarships by Tulsa, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC, which are all ranked in the top 25 as of March 8.

Vukic had some downtime before he made his decision to extend his tennis career, so he flew to the United States to compete in a Florida tournament.

Vukic’s future Illini teammate Jared Hiltzik was participating in the same tournament and was matched up with the Australian native.

Dancer was present at the match and observed the high talent level Vukic was showcasing on the court against one of Dancer’s best players. Hiltzik defeated Vukic, but Dancer was impressed and did not let this opportunity slip by.

He contacted Vukic after the match and gave him an offer to join the Illini.

After much contemplation, Vukic signed onto the Illinois squad. The sophomore said he was excited about the opportunity to play for the team but knew he had to make adjustments competing away from his homeland.

“I only see my family about once or twice a year,” Vukic said. “I actually saw my brother last weekend, so that was nice, but I don’t see them too often.”

Vukic said the transition to the United States has been pretty smooth on and off the court. There’s no language barrier between Australia and the U.S., and he said the pace of play on the tennis court is similar to the playing style in Australia because both have hard courts.

He is ranked No. 6 in the ITA National Player Rankings and will look to continue his successful play the rest of the season.

Pengxuan Jiang

Pengxuan Jiang — called “Aiden” by his teammates and friends — had quite the journey to Illinois.

Both Illinois and the Arizona scouted the Tianjin, China, native when he was in high school. Jiang said he knew that Illinois was where he wanted to grow as an athlete because of the sense of community around the team.

He went to high school at Weil Tennis Academy in Ojai, California. He noted that tennis does not have as large a following as he would have liked in his home country, so he wanted to pursue a serious career in the sport in the United States.

Jiang said that he struggled trying to speak and understand English at his boarding school and became frustrated at times when he had difficulty carrying out ordinary conversations with his peers.

“When I first (came) to America, I couldn’t speak one word. It was challenging,” Jiang said.

The frustrations did not affect his play on the court in California.

Jiang impressed the coaching staff in both singles and doubles and stood out as one of the best players at the school.

Dancer received a call from the coaching staff at Weil, and they informed him of Jiang’s abilities and potential. The Illinois coach made an offer to Jiang, and he accepted.

Arizona also offered Jiang a scholarship, but he trusted the Illinois coaches to take care of him for four years.

“I love Brad and (assistant coach) Marcos (Asse),” Jiang said. “They’re really nice guys, and it really feels like a team around here.”

Jiang has played in three doubles matches this season, all with junior Julian Childers and has gone 3-0.

Pablo Landa

Pablo Landa’s transition to college tennis was smoother than many other international college tennis players who compete in the United States.

He decided to forgo high school in Mexico City to develop his skills in the United States. Landa felt that he adjusted nicely to college life because of how he learned to live more independently at the Austin Tennis Academy in Texas.

Brandon Davis, a coach at the academy, developed a keen relationship with Landa, instructing him and further developing his game.

Landa felt that his success in his homeland, along with the coaching staff at the academy, has helped transform him into the player he is today. On his 18th birthday, Landa won the under-21 Mexican National Championship.

Davis gave Dancer a call and spoke with him about the type of player Landa was, and how he thought the left-hander would be a good fit for Illinois’ program.

Dancer traveled to Houston to watch Landa in action at the National Indoor Championships and was impressed enough to give Landa an offer after the match.

The Mexican native received another offer from Texas but said that the relationship between the coaches and players was more appealing at Illinois and accepted Dancer’s offer.

“It’s not that much the coach and the student; it’s more of a back-and-forth relationship,” Landa said. “That helped me make my decision because I felt I could grow more here.”

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