Seniors make a racket, reflect on returning for fifth, final year


Cameron Krasucki

Senior Noe Khlif lunges to hit a ball in a singles match against Minnesota April 4.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

Before they could outrightly become the outright Big Ten West division champions and set themselves up to crack an NCAA run they always had hoped for, the seniors of the Illinois men’s tennis team — Noe Khlif, Vuk Budic, Zeke Clark and Aleks Kovacevic — first needed to address a significant fork in their lives: opting in to play for a fifth year.
Khlif has grown fond of plenty of his teammates and coaches during his years at Illinois. Not only has he displayed some of his best tennis performances while playing alongside a supportive cast of friends and coaches, the French native also developed an affinity for Illinois itself.
“Everything was new the first time I came here,” Khlif said. “It’s a completely different culture, completely different environment with the school and everything, and I mean, I’m pretty happy. I had an unbelievable experience.”
Khlif already had chosen to play for head coach Brad Dancer and Associate Head Coach Marcos Asse regardless of the extra year of COVID-19 eligibility. Last year, he suffered a wrist injury that prevented him from playing for about eight months. Having missed out on the opportunity to advance his game as much as he would’ve liked, Khlif decided to return as a redshirt senior.
Deep into his final season, Khlif is cruising with a 10-match singles winning streak and sports an 11-1 singles record that totals to a 55-30 career record.
“It feels great,” Khlif said about his win streak. “You have some good days. You have some bad days, so it’s never easy. It’s obviously easier to win when it’s good days, but you also need to find a way when you don’t feel well on the court, and that’s what the 10-match winning streak is all about.”
In May, Khlif will graduate with a master’s degree in accounting and plans on staying in the United States. With Dancer’s help, Khlif is looking for a job and finishing up his application for Optional Practical Training, which permits international college students to stay on their student visas for another year while working with their degree.
When Budic got the option to return for a fifth year, it was a no-brainer that he too would return. As he’s also completing a master’s in accounting, he said his time at Illinois would’ve felt empty if he wasn’t playing this year.
“As soon as I realized that I could play another year of tennis, I was thrilled to be able to come back and play with my teammates, especially my senior class,” Budic said. “I think we all had some unfinished business that we had to take care of … Chasing a Big Ten title is something that we’ve always wanted when we came in as freshmen, and that’s where we’re on the road to now.”
En route to trying to achieve the Big Ten title, Budic has accumulated 51 career singles wins. When Budic isn’t playing, he’s still heavily present on the courts. He’s developed into a player-coach, giving his teammates tactical insights and support between points.
“I can only hope that my coaching has been beneficial to my team,” Budic said. “I know a few of my teammates have been appreciative of me for coaching them, and it’s been really nice to me to see that I can help in any way possible.”
Clark also was bound to join Khlif and Budic in coming back to represent the Illini once more. Even before the NCAA officially announced the extension, talk lingered, and Clark kept hope alive.
“I told Brad and ‘Cos if for some reason we would be able to get our year back, I would come back 100%,” Clark said.
In his fifth year, Clark has seen his presence, both on and off the courts, in a new light that enables him to ease the pressure he used to put on himself. In doing so, he’s had the chance to further develop his leadership.
“Ever since I stepped foot on campus, I’ve tried to be an emotional leader for the team,” Clark said. “I’d always bring good energy, and that’s just kind of a role I feel like I’ve played on this team for five years, and now I feel so comfortable in those shoes.”
Clark’s contributions to the team have also manifested in his array of accomplishments. This season alone, Clark remains undefeated with 14 singles wins to go along with 12 doubles wins. April 11, Clark clinched his 100th career singles victory, becoming the 16th Illini in program history to achieve the feat. Though the milestone came as a surprise to Clark, he was more than honored to join the decorated group of alumni.
“To be in a group of guys that I’ve heard so much about and looked up to — you know, most of the guys hang up on banners above indoors at Atkins, I see them every day, and it’s pretty cool to even consider myself in that group, so I feel privileged to be able to say that,” Clark said.
Out of the four seniors, Kovacevic’s decision to return wasn’t as quick and easy. With professional aspirations, Kovacevic thought he’d mostly be playing in tournaments after college, but that was complicated by COVID-19.
After careful consideration and persuasive conversations with his teammates, he first decided to come back for the pre-season matches, and then the whole season. He credits a big part of his return to the seniors’ “unfinished business” in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
“I wasn’t really planning on staying the whole time, then I kind of got attached to the team when I came, and I saw they wanted to win it,” Kovacevic said. “It felt like a team on a mission, so I kind of wanted to be a part of that … I saw how determined everyone was, and I was like, ‘They wanna do this. I wanna do this. Let’s do it.’”
Since then, Kovacevic has maintained a balance of finding success both collegiately and professionally. He’s closing in on the century benchmark with 96 career singles wins, eight of which come from being undefeated this season. His most commendable professional run occurred in mid-March at the Cleveland Challenger, where he progressively improved each match to make his first career semifinals appearance.
Looking back, Kovacevic knows he made the right decision with this fifth year.
“The experience hasn’t stayed the same, which is very important,” Kovacevic said. “You always wanna grow as a person and learn something new each year, so that’s definitely something that’s happened. If you start to have the same experience, it just gets a little monotonous, but every year for me has been a different step for my tennis and just life in general.”
Now that the seniors are nearing the end of their last season on a well-equipped team, they will try to cement their mark by achieving those coveted tournament titles. They’ll make their final run in the Big Ten April 30 and the NCAA May 7.

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