‘It’s always a new challenge’: Illinois men’s tennis endure mixed season of change, growing pains

The+Illinois+men%E2%80%99s+tennis+team+cheers+on+from+the+sidelines+during+doubles+matches+against+Chicago+State+on+Jan.+23.+The+Illini+finished+the+season+14-14+and+among+the+top+four+in+Big+Ten.+

Sydney Laput

The Illinois men’s tennis team cheers on from the sidelines during doubles matches against Chicago State on Jan. 23. The Illini finished the season 14-14 and among the top four in Big Ten.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

Just one season after reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships and winning the Big Ten Championships following a 23-3 season, Illinois men’s tennis was forced to rebuild in the 2021–2022 season after the departure of four prominent members of last year’s lineup.

This rebuilding done by head coach Brad Dancer and his staff have started out rough and featured many growing pains due to an almost completely new lineup. The Illini’s young core combined with veteran experience didn’t compete in the big matches as much as Dancer would have liked but boasted a 14-14 record overall and finished top four in the Big Ten.

Rebuilding was made difficult for Dancer and his staff, as the normal four-year collegiate cycle was disrupted by COVID-19, which extended some of the Illini’s vital players’ eligibility.

“It’s always a new challenge,” Dancer said just a week into the season. “The tricky part of it is due to COVID-19. 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.”

The first major weekend for this young Illini lineup saw them take the courts against conference rivals No. 6 Ohio State. Going into this match, some of the lineup was confident, but this was quickly shut down after a quick 4-0 sweep by the Buckeyes. It was clear that the same level of Illini dominance seen last season was not going to be a trend this season.

“The first match definitely woke us up,” said sophomore Hunter Heck, who played a large role in the team’s success as a freshman. “We came in pretty confident. We thought we were prepared, and Ohio State blew us out. None of us played all that well.”

Fast forwarding a week, Illinois traveled to ITA Kickoff Weekend in Oxford, Miss., where it aimed to be the top finisher in its group of four to move on to ITA Championships later in the season.

Dropping their two matches on the weekend to No. 22 Oklahoma and the undefeated No. 26 NC State, the Illini kept dropping in the rankings after being unable to beat any top tier programs. Dancer and the team grew even more frustrated after a 1-3 start to the season, already equalling last year’s losses.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Dancer said the week of the ITA Kickoff Weekend. “We have got to improve. If we can’t improve from now until May, we will be in trouble.”

Three more losses to No. 20 Michigan, Notre Dame and Duke and dropped Illinois down to 1-6 overall. Lacking in confidence completely, Illinois entered a match against No. 22 North Carolina expecting nothing. However, this would be the match that turned the year around entirely.

After beating Northern Kentucky earlier in the day, Illinois went into a match against No. 22 North Carolina with intensity not seen in any other match thus far. After dropping the doubles point, four Illini shone bright on their courts to pick up the huge win.

Heck’s Court 3 win over Mac Kiger leveled the score at one a piece, inspiring the Illini win. After a Tar Heel victory on Court 2, graduate student Alex Brown on Court 4 and redshirt junior Siphosothando Montsi on Court 1 both came back from set one losses to win their points. A clinch by freshman Gabrielius Guzauskas on Court 5 over Henry Lieberman won the Illini this important match. Illinois now sat at 3-6 on the season.

From this point onwards, the Illini went 4-4 in the month of March, only losing to top five opposition in TCU, Florida, Ohio State and Baylor. While it is never good to drop matches, only dropping matches to top five opponents showed that Illinois was slowly but surely growing into their season.

“I think that from a growth standpoint, we are starting to come together as a team,” Dancer said in late March. “Everyone is starting to talk with one another. In terms of responsibilities of each guy and the roles of each guy, I think there’s a little bit more coordination and cooperation amongst the team right now, and that’s a really good sign as we go to the future.”

April, the final month of Illinois’ season, was a tough one to endure from all perspectives. Going 7-4 in a month of competition would normally be a stellar accomplishment, but the team’s lack of consistency came back to haunt them come May. 

After dropping a match to No. 6 Michigan early in the month, the team rebounded with two dominant wins over Butler and Michigan State, aided by the Champaign wind in their first home matches outside of the season.

“I’m very happy to be back outside,” redshirt sophomore Lucas Horve said after the weekend. “It’s good to have the sun out, good to have the wind. I think that benefits a lot of our guys, just being in Champaign where it is always windy means we get a lot of good training in that. I think we are all excited to be back outdoors.”

Going on the road the next week, however, was one of the worst weeks in program history, as the team lost to Nebraska for the first time ever and snapped its over 10 match win streak against Wisconsin, dropping below both teams in the Big Ten rankings.

In spite of the setbacks, just one week later the team bounced back to win 4-1 over No. 26 Northwestern in a comfortable and dominant display. The team won their last three matches of the season after this, picking up wins over Eastern Illinois, Indiana and Purdue.

The team’s lack of consistency in the final month of conference play gave them the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament as the Illini looked to defend last season’s title. After avenging their loss earlier in the month against the Badgers, the Illini fell short against the Wolverines in the semifinals for the third time this season, who would be the eventual victors of the tournament.

This relatively disappointing month of play from Illinois led to the team not being selected for the NCAA Tournament, ending the team’s season in April.

Although the Illini fell short of their goals in the end, two Illini stood out amongst the rest after the regular season.

Heck went undefeated on Court 1 in singles, and also went undefeated in the Big Ten along the way, going 8-0. He ended the season on a 13-match win streak and earned unanimous first team All-Big Ten honors.

Graduate student and second team All-Big Ten honoree Olivier Stuart’s season continued into May, as he was selected for the NCAA Championship singles bracket. Although the Frenchman’s selection brought hope, he was knocked out in the first round by Harvard’s Henry von der Schulenburg, 6-1, 6-3. After this match, the Illini’s season was officially over.

While disappointment is inevitable for a program with such rich recent history, this year was obviously one of growth. As the team looked better and better throughout the season, Dancer and new associate coach Harry Jadun will look to work out the kinks in this young lineup and bring more consistent and experienced play into next season.

 

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