Illini tennis swings into Big Ten play with high expectations

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Jeffrey Hsu

Zeke Clark returns the ball during the meet against Chicago State at Atkins Tennis Centeron Feb. 15.

By Jackson Janes, Staff Writer

Illinois opens up its 2020 Big Ten season in Evanston, Illinois, on Saturday as the team takes on the Northwestern Wildcats before returning home to the Atkins Tennis Center to face the Purdue Boilermakers on Sunday.

After finishing as runners-up in last year’s Big Ten tournament, the Illini have high expectations going into the season. The Illini will lean on senior Aleks Kovacevic, who was a semifinalist in last year’s NCAA singles tournament, and junior Alex Brown, the ninth-ranked singles player in the country, to lead the team over its two conference rivals.

Illinois enters the match with a 3-6 record on a one-game losing skid after falling to No. 21 Baylor at home on Saturday, 4-3, with the team’s last win coming against Notre Dame on Feb. 15. Northwestern comes into the match with an 8-4 record on a two-game win streak after back-to-back wins over Columbia and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Illini dominated the fixture last year, cruising to a 4-0 win over the Wildcats in Urbana, with Brown, sophomore Siphosothando Montsi and senior Noe Khlif all picking up singles points at the meet.

Senior Zeke Clark hopes to carry his recent dominance into Evanston.

“We have made lots of good strides, especially in the last couple of weeks,” Clark said. “I feel like if we keep preparing and working hard, then I think we will be just fine.”

Head coach Brad Dancer pushes the team to focus on individual performance and contribution.

“As a team, we need to do less scoreboard watching and more just getting into the fight,” Dancer said. “Once we get in the fight, it will be much easier for us to stay in the fight.”

Illinois’ Big Ten home opener will be on Sunday as the team faces Purdue at Atkins Tennis Center.

In last year’s reverse fixture, the Illini cruised to a 4-0 victory of the Boilermakers in West Lafayette, Indiana, with Clark and Gomes both earning singles points for the team.

Purdue enters the match with a 10-6 record, coming off a tough 4-3 loss to Cleveland State at home on Sunday. Purdue also boasts the No. 20-ranked singles player in the nation in senior Athell Bennett, while Illinois has three top-100 players of its own: Brown (No. 9), Montsi (No. 52) and Kovacevic (No. 85).

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