Illinois to take talents to Sweet 16, will play Florida in NCAA tournament

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Photo Courtesy of Craig Pessman/Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Aleks Kovacevic smiles after winning a match against Notre Dame on Saturday. The 16-seeded Illini will strive to showcase all its talents when they face No. 1 Florida at the NCAA tournament.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

Aleks Kovacevic honestly doesn’t know what has clicked for the Illinois men’s tennis team this season.  

On top of earning a Big Ten regular season accolade and the championship, Illinois is on a roll with a 19-match winning streak and boasts a 23-2 overall record. But Kovacevic doesn’t even think the team has played its best tennis across the board. The best, he said, has yet to come. 

The 16-seeded Illini will strive to showcase all its talents when they face No. 1 Florida in the third round of the NCAA tournament, which the United States Tennis Association will host at its National Campus in Orlando, Florida. 

The Gators are 22-2, with one loss coming in the preseason to now-No. 4 Texas and another from postseason SEC tournament play to the now-No. 3 Tennessee. In the first and second rounds of NCAA regionals, which the Gators hosted, they cruised past South Alabama 4-0 and South Florida 4-1. South Florida picked up its lone point in doubles play. 

“Great players, great coaches,” head coach Brad Dancer said of Florida. “It’ll be a big challenge for us, no question. They’ve just got good players up and down the road, so it should be an interesting challenge for us.”

Florida won’t be the first No. 1 team the Illini have looked to upset. In the opening round of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Team Indoor Championships, Illinois defeated then-No. 1 USC 4-1. But seeding can be rather arbitrary, and Dancer isn’t going to make parallels between top teams.

“Those are numbers next to names,” Dancer said. “I think anybody who’s a sports person — they don’t get caught up in numbers; they just get caught up in the competition. Hopefully, that’s exactly where our guys’ minds are, not worried too much about what a team is ranked, just really how to beat the guy on the other side of the net.”

In the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Illini were playing at what appeared to be their finest. They beat DePaul 4-1 after dropping the doubles point and pulled no punches in sweeping Notre Dame 4-0 the next day. 

After winning his match against Notre Dame on Saturday, Kovacevic, still trying to figure out what’s been working for the team, concluded that Illinois’ gritty determination could be the answer. 

“We just have a lot of talent in our squad, and we’ve just been showing up,” Kovacevic said Saturday after winning his match against Notre Dame. “Every match has been amazing. We have enough people every match to come up, and step up and play.” 

Senior Aleks Kovacevic kisses the court after winning a match against Notre Dame on Saturday. (Photo Courtesy of Craig Pessman/Fighting Illini Athletics)

 

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