Illinois ekes out road win against No. 23 Northwestern

Senior+Aleks+Kovacevic+prepares+to+return+the+ball+against+Chicago+State+on+Feb.+15.+Illinois+won+the+match%2C+4-0.

Jeffrey Hsu

Senior Aleks Kovacevic prepares to return the ball against Chicago State on Feb. 15. Illinois won the match, 4-0.

By Luca Ripani, Staff writer

The Illinois men’s tennis team picked up its first ranked win of the spring season on Saturday with a 4-3 victory over the No. 23 Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston. The Illini move to 4-6 on the season and 1-0 in Big Ten play following Saturday’s win.

The Illini raced out to a 1-0 lead by securing the doubles point in consecutive 6-3 victories, leaving the third set unfinished. In singles play, the Wildcats proved more of a challenge, evening the score at 3-3 after trading off victories with the Illini. The match came down to senior Zeke Clark, who faced Northwestern senior Chris Ephron. Clark secured an Illini win with a 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 6-3 victory.

After seeing multiple final points this season go the opponent’s way, Illinois head coach Brad Dancer was content after witnessing a match finally go his way, saying the match was “overall, just a complete team victory.” Dancer also noted the universal nature of the win.  

“Doubles. Singles. Bench. Alumni and fans. We’ve been limping along and not able to capitalize on opportunities all season,” Dancer said, per Illini Athletics. “Today our guys came out with great intensity and focus, and then we hit that wall and Northwestern fought back, and it got super tough.”

Before the match, senior Aleks Kovacevic said the team could turn a new page at the start of conference play each season.

“What’s cool about (Big Ten play) is that we’ll have a clean slate. The record that we have now, as much as we’re not seen as a top-tier team, it doesn’t matter when it comes to Big Ten play,” Kovacevic said. “(The team) is motivated to go out to Big Ten (play) and show what we got there when the opportunity presents itself.”

Clark also spoke about the importance of conference play for the program.

“Our one goal all year is to win the Big Ten championship. That’s where our minds have been,” Clark said. “So far the non conference schedule hasn’t gone quite as well as we would’ve liked, but (non-conference matches) prepare us for the Big Ten. We’re super excited to get things rolling. Every match in the Big Ten is gonna be tough. Every team in the Big Ten is very good. So we gotta go in, take it match by match, and make sure we’re all prepared.”

Today’s win notched Dancer’s 300th career win as the Illini head coach, making him the first head coach in program history to reach that victory mark. The Illini face a quick turnaround, hosting the Purdue Boilermakers on Sunday. Illinois will then face its final non conference opponents of the season, hosting the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs on March 14 before traveling to Lexington, Kentucky to face the Kentucky Wildcats on March 22.

[email protected]