Three Illini enter NCAA singles competition

Senior+Aleks+Kovacevic+shakes+hands+with+another+player+during+their+game+against+Notre+Dame+May+8.++Aleks+Kovacevic%2C+Siphosothando+Montsi+and+Zeke+Clark+will+enter+the+NCAA+singles+competition.

Photo Courtesy of Craig Pessman / Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Aleks Kovacevic shakes hands with another player during their game against Notre Dame May 8. Aleks Kovacevic, Siphosothando Montsi and Zeke Clark will enter the NCAA singles competition.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

Three strong links in Illinois’ chain will continue their NCAA campaigns in the individual singles tournament: Aleks Kovacevic, Siphosothando Montsi and Zeke Clark.

The NCAA released its selections May 4, and the competition will commence Sunday, with the University of Central Florida and the Greater Orlando Sports Commission serving as hosts. 

This year marks Kovacevic’s second appearance in the tournament. In 2019, he made a deep run and advanced to the semifinals, a feat an Illini hadn’t accomplished since Kevin Anderson in 2007. 

On top of competing in professional tournaments throughout the season, Kovacevic went 11-1 at the No. 1 singles position. As of late, head coach Brad Dancer has been working with Kovacevic on his mentality, and it will remain a focus this weekend when he faces Auburn’s Tyler Stice.

Playing at the No. 1 singles spot, Stice posted a 16-13 record and was recognized with the First-Team All-SEC honors. The sophomore is Auburn’s first player to qualify for the singles tournament since 2015.

“For all these guys, you know, they’re playing to win, and you gotta play to win,” Dancer said. “It’s different with each guy, but with Kova, he’s gotta stay loose and trust his shots and making sure he’s transitioning and getting to the net when he can, because that’s a big part of his game.”

Clark and Montsi were selected to the tournament for the first time, but they’re no strangers to the competition NCAA play entails. With the skills and experience to support their game, Dancer mainly emphasized small details of play like the Florida heat.

“They’ve played so much tennis — you know what I mean — that it’s not like we’re gonna unveil some new secret or something like that,” Dancer said. “We’re just working on staying calm. The heat will be a factor, so managing the heat, and I think all those little things that just try to get them in the right mindset.”

With a 17-2 singles record, Clark received an automatic qualification along with 12 athletes across the country. He has wins, most of which were match-clinching victories, over teams like University of Southern California, Virginia and Ohio State. 

Playing against South Carolina’s Connor Thomson, Clark will need to remain offensive-minded. Thomson earned First-Team All-SEC honors with an 18-13 singles record. 

Montsi, like Kovacevic, qualified for the competition as an at-large selection. The redshirt sophomore’s growth this season has manifested into more opportunities, and he’s consistently played at the No. 1 and No. 2 singles positions. He tallied a 12-match winning streak early on and sports a 17-3 record. 

Dancer knows Montsi will bring what he’s learned throughout the season in his tournament debut when he matches up against Tyler Zink from Georgia. Named to the All-SEC Second Team, Zink put up a 12-11 singles record. He also will compete in the doubles bracket with Trent Bryde as one of the top seeds.

“Siphs has to take core position as much as he can and make sure he’s dictating and using his forehand,” Dancer said. “His forehand’s becoming more of a weapon, and that’s gonna be really important for him in this.”

Draws and play times will be released Saturday morning, and matches will be played starting at 10 a.m. and throughout the day Sunday. Streaming will be available on TennisONE. 

 

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