Illini men’s tennis regroups after four seniors graduate, aims to defend Big Ten title

Illinois+Men%E2%80%99s+Tennis+Alex+Brown+prepares+to+receive+the+ball+during+his+singles+match+against+Chicago+State+on+Jan.+22.+The+team+hopes+to+keep+up+the+success+from+the+past+season+after+key+seniors+leave.+

Sydney Laput

Illinois Men’s Tennis Alex Brown prepares to receive the ball during his singles match against Chicago State on Jan. 22. The team hopes to keep up the success from the past season after key seniors leave.

By Drew Friberg, Staff Writer

Illinois men’s tennis accomplished what many teams can only dream of doing in the 2021 spring season. 

Everything from their upset against No. 1 Southern California in February to its Big Ten Championship victory over Ohio State in May showed just how special of a group this Illinois team was.

A lot of this group’s discipline and success can be attributed to the leadership qualities displayed by the four seniors at the time: Zeke Clark, Aleks Kovacevic, Noe Khlif and Vuk Budic. Losing four seniors for any team hurts, but these four were more than just ordinary seniors for the program.

“It’s a group of legends,” said head coach Brad Dancer. “It’s just a great group of talented individuals, tough individuals, leaders and great models.”

In his senior season, Kovacevic played every singles match at the No. 1 position and boasted an impressive 14-2 record, earning a ranking as high as No. 35 in the country for singles. 

Clark in his senior season also impressed, playing at the No. 1 position in doubles for the majority of the year and picking up the final point needed for the Illini to close out their Big Ten Championship win over the Ohio State Buckeyes. 

The majority of Khlif’s matches were played at the No. 6 position in singles, as he put up a 17-2 record on the season, including a win over his opponent in the match against Ohio State. 

Budic’s senior season was in more of a coaching role for the team, but he was still instrumental to his team’s success through his great leadership qualities, always pushing his team to do better.

The Illini go into this spring season looking to replicate some of the magic produced last year, but the team knows it will be harder than it was last year, as the roster has much less experience this year.

“It’s always a new challenge,” Dancer said. “The tricky part of it is due to COVID. Guys who have been here a few years now, maybe last year would have been their time to start their leadership process, and they didn’t get a chance because we had all of those fifth-year people back.”

With this lack of experience that this Illinois roster is facing this season, current upperclassmen are seeing this as an opportunity to guide the team to victory. 

“Really no day-to-day things have changed,” said graduate student Alex Brown. “In terms of experience, just the role to lead by example has changed for me.”

Brown had spent his past four years playing alongside this special group of athletes and even ranked at No. 14 in doubles with Clark as his partner in the spring 2021 season. If anyone on this Illinois roster knows how to lead by example, it would be Brown.

To combat this lack of experience, Dancer and his team have also been working to bring in new faces. Graduate student Olivier Stuart has joined this Illinois lineup after playing four seasons at Mercer. Stuart is the oldest member of the team and is no stranger to tough competition, having made it to the final eight of the singles bracket in ITA Midwest Regionals back in November. He also will be instrumental in helping guide this team to success.

While there’s no sure way to fill in the gaps left by last year’s seniors, Illinois is using the boost from its successful season last year to prepare for future seasons by giving lots of experience to young guys, who are taking advantage of this opportunity.

Redshirt junior Lucas Horve has started his spring season off going undefeated in singles play at the Illini’s most recent tournament. Sophomore Hunter Heck and freshman Gabrielius Guzauskas are getting big wins and important matches under their belt going into the Illini’s tough spring schedule.

The Illini’s road to success this season will not be a straightforward one, as many challenges will need to be overcome as the season progresses. However, this season is sure to breed future leaders for this Illinois tennis team.

 

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