Illinois defeats DePaul, Notre Dame to advance in NCAA Tournament


Photo Courtesy of Craig Pessman / Illinois Athletics

The Illinois men’s tennis team poses in front of the scoreboard at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex on Saturday. Illinois beat DePaul and Notre Dame to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

The Illinois men’s tennis team is off to the Sweet 16.

That’s the next set of challenges Illinois is looking to take on after knocking out DePaul and Notre Dame in the first and second rounds of the NCAA regional tournament this weekend. 

Illinois hosted the regional at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex, and though people in attendance were limited to friends and family members, fans lined the surrounding fences to see the Illini play at home one final time, bringing with them chatter and chants to liven up the atmosphere. 

“You can see our bench; they’re making all sorts of noise,” said Head Coach Brad Dancer. “They’re obnoxious, hopefully politely obnoxious, and we love that. We encourage that. We want our guys to feel that energy, and it’s just nonstop.”

The Illini played off that energy, not only on the bench but also on the courts. With support from the crowd, Illinois defeated DePaul 4-1 Friday, overcoming windy weather and bouncing back from dropping the doubles point. 

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With singles play underway, the team hit reset, and what happens in doubles stays in doubles.

“I never really feel like the doubles point affects the singles point that much,” Dancer said. “I feel like they’re two separate entities, and the best teams play it that way. They play the doubles as hard as they can and then, win or lose, they come out in the singles, and they’re really determined and focused.” 

And that’s exactly what the Illini did — in straight sets. Hunter Heck reeled in the 6-1, 6-1, finish to give Illinois its first point. Siphosothando Montsi won 6-1, 6-3, and Zeke Clark defeated his opponent 6-2, 6-3.

Noe Khlif clinched the win for the Illini with a big comeback. In his first set, Khlif was down 3-0 but rallied through three straight games to tie it. The score would tie twice more before Khlif pulled off the 7-5 win. Khlif’s second set wasn’t so back and forth, and he quickly notched a 6-2 second-set win to send the Illini to the second round. 

Illinois rolled into Saturday’s match against Notre Dame with the same momentum. Having made key adjustments, particularly in doubles, the Illini swept the Fighting Irish 4-0. 

“DePaul played such good doubles yesterday,” Dancer said. “I think it was a smack upside the head, and that certainly forced us to be ready for Notre Dame and everything they had.”

The Illini gained traction midway through doubles play after breaking serves on all courts. Khlif and Montsi hammered out the first win 6-3 on court two, while Heck and Aleks Kovacevic added the finishing touches to the point with another 6-3 victory on court three. 

Heck and Kovacevic, who hold a 3-2 record, are a relatively new duo and a dynamic one, too. Heck is a freshman, and Kovacevic is a vetted fifth year, so they both add their own flair to the game, but they’re not all that different. 

“A lot of the — I wouldn’t say struggles — but a lot of the mannerisms that he has on the court are similar to what I had when I was a freshman,” Kovacevic said. “So I have some experience on how to handle that by now, and I try to tell him very specific points on the court to try to get his mind away from, let’s say, nerves or I’m telling him, ‘Hit the ball here,’ just giving him kind of a goal to where to play. No way am I immune to nerves. I tell him all the time, ‘Dude, I’m nervous as hell, too. Don’t worry, it’s not just you.’”

These nerves played somewhat of a role in the results of Kovacevic’s recent matches, as he hasn’t been hitting his stride, and as Dancer put it, he has been a little “disastrous.” But Saturday brought out the Kovacevic that Dancer knew. 

He made quick hustles, stepped to the ball and delivered strong serves. Simply put, Kovacevic played like himself, and Dancer was more than happy Kovacevic could close out his final career match at Khan with a win. Kovacevic’s victory also was accompanied by Khlif’s 6-2, 6-0, win and Alex Brown’s 6-2, 6-2, win. 

When Kovacevic delivered the final hit to take his match 6-2, 6-2, he knelt down and bid farewell to his home court with a kiss. 

“Today was pretty special,” Kovacevic said. “We won the Big Ten regular season and the tournament, so to get through these first few matches and then start to really get into the nitty gritty of the NCAA tournament is something that’s important to the legacy of this team this year.

“This place means the world to me.” 


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