Masterful performance from Ozolins lifts Illinois men’s tennis to upset win over No. 13 Georgia

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Sidney Malone

Sophomore Karlis Ozolins hits a backhand during a match against the University of Central Florida. Ozolins had a strong performance and won his second set during singles against one of the top-ranked players in the nation.

By Conor Blount, Assistant Sports Editor

Coming off a successful home weekend where Illinois men’s tennis dropped just two points across two matches, the Illini traveled north to Chicago on Wednesday for a faceoff with No. 13 Georgia. Being in different conferences, this match marked just the ninth time the programs have ever met, with the Bulldogs owning a comfortable 7-1 series lead to enter the night. However, spectacular singles play coupled with a comeback win for the doubles point spoiled Georgia’s dominance and Illinois claimed its first win over the Bulldogs in two decades, 4-2.

When facing an opponent as elite as Georgia it is a staggering task to point out any weaknesses, but when considering that No. 5 redshirt freshman Ethan Quinn and No. 8 redshirt senior Philip Henning headline courts one and two of singles play, it was necessary for Illinois to take the doubles point if it wanted any chance at winning the match.

Still, the only ranked duo in the match was Georgia’s No. 24 Quinn and redshirt senior Trent Bryde, who were lined up against Illinois’ graduate Oliver Okonkwo and sophomore Mathis Debru on court one. Unfortunately for the Illini, Okonkwo and Debru were no match for the Bulldog’s top duo. A quick 6-2 victory on court one severely decreased the margin of error allowed for Illinois’ four remaining competitors, but sophomore Karlis Ozolins, junior Hunter Heck, sophomore Gabrielius Guzauskas and redshirt junior Lucas Horve managed to close out doubles flawlessly.

After a tightly contested couple of opening games, Ozolins and Heck made a major turnaround and dominated the rest of the match to give Illinois its own 6-2 win. With all eyes now on court three, Guzauskas and Horve were in a tightly contested battle. Neither duo was able to gain much ground over the other, resulting in the score being knotted at 6-6 through 12 games which made a tiebreaker game necessary to determine the victor. In one of the most pivotal moments of the entire match, Guzauskas and Horve came out on top, earning a final score of 7-6(5) and giving Illinois a 1-0 advantage heading into singles play.

Prior to this match, Georgia had just one win on the season after losing the doubles point, giving the Illini a much-needed advantage for the rest of the match. This was immediately apparent when the first two singles matches to finish were in favor of the Bulldogs, with Heck falling 6-2, 6-0 on court two and Okonkwo dropping 6-2, 7-5 on court five. Now trailing 2-1, Illinois had to dig deep if it wanted any chance at coming out on top.

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    The first sign of life in singles play came on court one, where Ozolins put on a clinic against one of the best singles players in the country. Despite having a rough start to the season, Quinn has never been viewed as less than a top-five singles player in the country this season, making Ozolins’ performance one of the most impressive Illinois has ever seen. Coming out on top of a tightly contested 6-4 first set, Ozolins doubled down and claimed an even more dominant win in the second set, 6-3.

    Even during Ozolins’ match, victory for Illinois was brewing on court four, but the writing was on the wall after Georgia’s top dog was taken down. Building on Ozolins dominance, freshman Kenta Miyoshi battled for a 6-4 second-set win after a decisive 6-1 performance in the first set. Illinois had taken back the lead, sitting at 3-2, and only needed one more point to walk away with the upset win.

    Two more matches were in progress and it was ultimately sophomore William Mroz who delivered the clinching blow on court three. Matched up against No. 87 Bryde, Mroz managed to come out on top of two of the most contested sets of the entire match. Forced to a tiebreaker game in each set of his straight-set victory, Mroz’s durability resulted in final scores of 7-6(7) and 7-6(2) en route to Illinois’ fourth point of the match.

    Graduate Nic Meister was also in a solid position to win another point for the Illini on court six, having traded 6-3 sets with his Georgia counterpart with a decisive third set on the way, but it was decided that match would go unfinished.

    This match marked the continuation of an impressive streak the Illini have started their spring season with, now sitting at 9-0 when playing at home or on neutral grounds. While still fighting for an elusive road victory, the 9-4 Illini have now proven they can overcome even the most daunting of opponents after struggling against No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Kentucky at the beginning of the season.

    Illinois men’s tennis will get a couple of days off in the Windy City before participating in the ITA National Team Indoor Tournament from Friday to Monday.

     

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