Bench boost: Men’s tennis credits energy, enthusiasm from sidelines for successful season

The+Illinois+tennis+team+cheers+on+teammates+from+the+bench+during+their+game+May+7+against+Depaul.+The+teams+bench+energy+continues+to+hype+up+every+player+on+the+team.+

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

The Illinois tennis team cheers on teammates from the bench during their game May 7 against Depaul. The team’s bench energy continues to hype up every player on the team.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

It was the third round of the NCAA tournament, and Illinois was playing against Florida. 

The bench was in the stands alongside the fans, as only certain people had clearance to be on the courts during play. 

But minutes ahead of the match, head coach Brad Dancer called on his five players — the other six were practicing on the courts — and three team managers.

Dancer wanted them to be extra loud that day. About 60 fans had come to Orlando to support Illinois, including alumni and family. The Illini were on the heels of a successful regular season and wanted to avenge their 2019 second-round tournament exit, so, all things considered, this was a big moment for the team. 

Standing among the group huddled around Dancer was junior Kweisi Kenyatte.

“Brad, we’re about to play in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament,” Kenyatte said. “I think we can take care of the cheering. You just gotta take care of the other guys.” 

It’s in moments like these when the team’s culture really takes shape. Though the Illini eventually lost to the Gators 4-0, the experience, as Dancer has made clear, isn’t always about winning. 

Unlike the other two managers who have been with the team since 2017, junior Zach Pereira started the gig in September. 

Though he’s new to the scene, Pereira caught on quickly. While stringing the team’s busted rackets, he started stringing together conversations. He found himself messing around with the guys at practice, singing the French national anthem to show some love for senior Noe Khlif — who hails from Marseille, France — when he’s on the brink of a victory and driving 15.5 hours from Champaign to Orlando to support the guys. In the span of a mere season, Pereira wholeheartedly was engulfed in the culture. 

In the 17 years Dancer has coached at Illinois, 16 of which he served as head coach, he has fostered a dynamic environment entrenched with an “all in” mentality. 

“Something Brad, our coach, would describe all year is if we wanna have a great season, we wanna win the Big Ten tournament, we wanna go to NCAA and make a run, everybody has to be all in,” said redshirt sophomore Nic Meister.

As Pereira has witnessed, being “all in” manifests itself in different ways, and it’s largely a developmental process. 

“Everybody on this team has one major goal, and that is not just to become a better tennis player but also a better person,” Pereira said. “I feel like that’s what Brad Dancer really preaches as the head coach. Him and (associate head coach) Marcos Asse do a great job of ensuring that these guys aren’t just good individuals and good players when they’re on the court, but they are also respectable people when they’re off the court.”

Considering Pereira is surrounded by guys devoted to their characters as much as they are to their sport, it’s easy to root for them. Throughout the season, he’s been someone they could look to for morale, and morale can go a long way. 

As Kenyatte sees it, the hardest part about tennis is how it’s an individual sport: Once you’re on the court, it’s just you and your opponent.

“If you’re having a bad day, there are no substitutions like other sports,” Kenyatte said. “You really have to kinda stay out there and fight, so when you look down and see — no matter what the score is looking like — your teammates are still pumping you up and filling you with love and energy, it just gives you that extra bump.” 

Kenyatte transferred from Valparaiso in 2019, and just like Pereira, he’s had no trouble etching out a piece of the culture. In fact, that was one of the alluring appeals of coming to play for Dancer at Illinois. 

When he first committed to the change, Kenyatte said people had their doubts. They didn’t think he’d be able to make the transition from a Division III tennis program to arguably one of the best in the country.

But the culture at Illinois doesn’t leave room for doubt. Kenyatte knew his potential, and Dancer did too. 

Just before sitting out the end of the season due to a broken finger, Kenyatte posted a 6-6 singles record and a 4-5 doubles record, and his contributions didn’t stop there.

“I think it’s obvious to everyone that Zeke Clark is the heart and soul of the program, but I like to be his little background dancer,” Kenyatte said. “I think I’m very good at adding to the hype as well, so, you know, I just try to do my part, and I feel everyone has a part to do. … If you’re playing, your part is to play, and if you’re on the bench, your job is to scream and shout.”

In a season where empty stands were a staple scene, the bench had to fill the void, which wasn’t hard for it to do. 

“A consistent theme throughout our Big Ten season and in the Big Ten tournament was that we mostly dominated the bench,” Meister said. 

Meister has had the “all in” mentality ingrained in his mind ever since he transferred from Claremont McKenna College in 2020. Though he wasn’t hitting balls on the bench, the energy he brought was just as effective as playing on the courts. 

When it comes down to it, the team’s accomplishments this season — the record, the accolades, the Big Ten Championship title, the NCAA run — are all due to every racket strung in practice, every chant yelled from the bench and every hour spent on the courts.  

The experience isn’t about winning. It’s about evolving, supporting each other and creating a lasting legacy. Winning is a result of the experience, and that’s what the team culture has embodied for 17 years and counting. 

 

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