Men’s tennis season rewind: Illinois rides early stride throughout season to capture its successes

Senior+Zeke+Clark+stands+in+the+middle+of+a+team+circle+May+8+against+Norte+Dame.+Over+a+long+season%2C+the+team+has+accomplished+a+lot+and+proven+to+be+strong+together.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Zeke Clark stands in the middle of a team circle May 8 against Norte Dame. Over a long season, the team has accomplished a lot and proven to be strong together.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

Illinois men’s tennis capped off its season with much to show for its unprecedented year. 

The Illini had plenty of talent heading into the season, as head coach Brad Dancer welcomed back a familiar cast who opted in for their extra year of NCAA eligibility: Aleks Kovacevic, Noe Khlif, Vuk Budic and Zeke Clark. But there really wasn’t time to celebrate the team’s reunion. 

“It’s one of those things where we got guys coming back, and right away in the beginning of the year we got guys hitting COVID protocols, whether they’re contact traced or had to go into health and safety protocols,” Dancer said. “The first two months of the season, we were never at sort of, ‘Hey, everybody’s here for practice. Let’s talk about this or talk about that.’ So it was a challenge throughout the season, not just for us but for all the teams across the country.”

While trying to adjust to pandemic play, the team started its season Jan. 15, joining Michigan and Ohio State in singles and doubles competitions without team scoring at the Ohio State Invitational. The tournament served as an opportunity for Illinois to gauge its several newcomers: freshmen Alex Petrov and Hunter Heck and redshirt sophomore Nic Meister. Redshirt freshman Alex Bancila also played in matches, as did junior Kweisi Kenyatte, who sat out the previous season due to a wrist injury. 

From Feb. 12-14, Illinois hosted the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Team Indoor Championships, where it knocked off two top-ranked teams after entering the competition as the eight seed and the lone unranked school. 

After securing the doubles point and picking up singles wins from Siphosothando Montsi, Kenyatte and Clark, Illinois defeated then-No. 1 University of Southern California 4-1. 

“We knew how good they were,” Dancer said of USC. “They were the defending national champions with all of their guys back, and we really took it to them, and that was kind of an awesome match in that sense in the first go.”

After falling 4-0 to then-No. 4 Baylor the next day, the Illini bounced back against then-No. 7 Virginia. Illinois was without Kovacevic, who was playing at a professional event in Florida, and behind the doubles point. But Bancila, Heck, Montsi and Clark rallied to bring Illinois the 4-3 victory. 

“Once we did that, I think we all just looked at each other, and we knew we had a special team,” Kenyatte said.

And it’s safe to say the team’s confidence wasn’t ill-advised. Despite losing to Ohio State on Feb. 21, Illinois was steadily plowing through its Big Ten-only schedule. When Illinois played against then-No. 25 Michigan on March 26, it was on a six-match winning streak that it later kept building onto well into the postseason. The Illini chipped away at the Wolverines, winning 5-2.

On April 9, Illinois played against Iowa for the last time in program history. Iowa announced it was cutting four sports after financial ramifications induced by the pandemic. With the Hawkeyes’ season nearing an end, the men’s tennis program closed its final year. In the monumental matchup, Illinois came off with a 5-2 win. 

With a 4-0 sweep over Nebraska on April 11, Illinois clinched the Big Ten West division title. It had earned at least a share of it in its win against Iowa and sought to be the outright winner, which it accomplished. 

Against the Wildcats on April 18, the Illini were on the cusp of their first loss since Feb. 21. Illinois fought for control of the match and eventually arrived at a 4-3 victory. A week later, the Illini defeated the Hoosiers in their third 4-0 sweep of the season. 

Ahead of postseason play, three Illini were named to the All-Big Ten First Team: Clark, Kovacevic and Montsi. At the time of selection, Clark was undefeated and on a 15-match winning streak. He also achieved his 100th career singles victory April 11. Kovacevic’s unanimous selection was aided by an 8-0 singles record at the No. 1 singles position for Illinois. 

Montsi’s unanimous selection was a credit to his 14-2 singles record, 12 of which were consecutive wins. He stepped into a bigger role on the team this year in terms of on-court play and off-court leadership, and that was largely because of his personal growth. 

“He’s gotten stronger, mentally and physically, and those two things are huge in the development of a tennis player,” Dancer said. “He’s more mature, emotionally; he’s stronger physically. … Siphs has grown by leaps and bounds, and his honors this year were well deserved.”

In the Big Ten tournament at Nebraska, Illinois defeated Indiana 4-0 and Michigan 4-2 early on to advance to the final. 

“I thought we were surgical in our first round against Indiana, and that was great,” Dancer said. “And same thing in the singles against Michigan, and we just looked really strong throughout that tournament.”

Championship play came down to Illinois and Ohio State, which was the only Big Ten team it lost to throughout the season. Illinois picked up the doubles point but trailed 3-1 in the middle of singles play. Heck and Khlif brought the score to a tie, and Clark clinched the 4-3 championship victory in a third-set tiebreaker. 

The championship was the first of many things: Illinois hadn’t beaten Ohio State in five years and hadn’t won a tournament title in six. This achievement was a factor the seniors weighed heavily in deciding to return in the first place. 

“This group has done so much, but they don’t have the accolades, and this was an accolade thing,” Dancer said. “I just think for them to get those accolades and get that feather in the cap for a group that’s really had tremendous results, great contributions but no specific title to add to it, so the regular season and tournament titles were just awesome for them.”

Adding to its postseason accomplishments, Illinois defeated DePaul 4-1 and Notre Dame 4-0 in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, which was hosted at Atkins Tennis Center May 7 and 8.

The Illini earned a trip to Florida to compete in the round of 16. The No. 16 seed Illinois drew No. 1 seed Florida and lost 4-0 on May 17. This was the Illini’s first loss in months, and it shattered the team’s 19-match winning streak and subsequently ended their season with an overall 23-3 record. 

Clark, Kovacevic and Montsi, however, stayed in Florida to compete in the NCAA singles tournament. 

Having officially entered the offseason, Illinois will look to build on its future without its four seniors, but the team is undoubtedly left in good hands. 

[email protected]