Hunter Heck embraces leadership role with Illinois men’s tennis after breakout freshman season

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Photo courtesy of Illini Athletics

Illini Tennis Hunter Heck takes on the position as a strong leader in the team as well as having a successful season this year.

By Drew Friberg, Staff Writer

Sophomore Hunter Heck is in his second season with the Illini and is performing at an elite level. At the college level, however, performing well on your own isn’t enough. While professional tennis features more independent, solo play from the likes of Serena Williams or Roger Federer, college tennis is a team sport.

In collegiate tennis, the game is very different. There is a need to be both a great teammate and individual player. To be part of a university’s tennis program is to perform at a high level individually, while also making sure your teammates perform at a high level too. To win matches, the whole team must be firing on all cylinders. There always must be someone to hold the team accountable in practice and lead by example in matches. 

Heck is growing into this role for the Illini. The young star is back at Illinois for his second season playing the best tennis of his career, though he still personifies what it means to be a great teammate in such a seemingly individual sport. 

“I think for me as an individual, I am a good team player,” Heck said. “It’s just my job to keep working as hard as I can to continue the success that we’ve been having as a team and make sure we keep putting in the work every day.”

Heck is coming off of an impressive first year of college tennis, playing a huge role in the Illini’s Big Ten championship last May. Heck ended his first year going 11-3 in singles in Big Ten play, which included picking up a pivotal singles point in Illinois’ 4-3 comeback victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament championship.

Going into Heck’s second season at Illinois, a lot of things have changed. The Illini have lost four seniors from last season, meaning there are a lot more expectations resting on his shoulders to be both a leader and a great teammate. 

“That’s probably one of the big challenges for him; where does he fit in on his team?” said head coach Brad Dancer. “He’s just a sophomore, he’s young and he hasn’t had a ton of team experience in tennis to be a leader here. Where he sees himself on this team is a part of the ongoing change and metamorphosis that he’s going through at the moment.”

Heck isn’t troubled by these expectations, though. In fact, he intends to flourish in his new role. So far this fall, Heck has picked up where he left off last season, boasting a 9-4 record in singles play. He also has put up some of the highest finishes for the Illini this fall at competitive tournaments like the ITA Midwest Regionals.

“I feel like I can thrive in a team environment,” Heck said. “I feel like I can do a good job of motivating my teammates and making sure my teammates and I are all working hard and staying disciplined.”

To be the type of leader and teammate Heck intends to be, it is important to be trusted by your team. But Heck’s teammates all enjoy him and his growing role on the team.

“Hunter is an incredibly kind person, and I think everybody loves Hunter,” Dancer said. “I always joke with the team that Hunter seems to be like everyone’s best friend.”

Coming off the back of the great success of Heck’s freshman year, Illini fans should be excited that their future lies in his hands. Heck has his eyes set on one thing and one thing only this season.

“Definitely to run it back and get another Big Ten championship,” Heck said of his goals for the year. “I know we are going to have a really tough season this year, but that will be a lot of fun.”

 

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