Illinois men’s tennis leaves Chicago with two top-25 wins under its belt

By Martin O'Connor, Staff Writer

After a huge upset win in Chicago against No. 13 Georgia, Illinois went into the ITA National Team Indoor Tournament with high hopes of taking down some more juggernauts. Sitting as the 16 seed in the tournament, the Illini were fighting an uphill battle from the start with their first-round opponent being No. 1 Ohio State. With the two programs’ most recent meeting being just a month ago, Illinois had the perfect opportunity to avenge its 6-1 loss from earlier in the season.

Ahead of their match midweek against Georgia and the subsequent ITA Tournament, Illinois head coach Brad Dancer was confident in the direction of his squad. Although the Illini are still in search of an elusive road win, they entered the weekend with an impressive 8-0 record on home and neutral courts.

“I think what people have seen so far is a lot of big personalities, lot of excitement and a lot of big hitters,” Dancer said. “Kind of a little bit more of the old school Illinois fashion of we’re going to come at you, and you’re going to feel our presence out there.”

While Illinois walked away from Chicago with a record of 2-2, this weekend cannot be considered as anything other than a win when considering the level of competition. The official ITA Tournament ended in the first round for the Illini, being knocked out of the first round by Ohio State 4-0. From there, the Illini played in two consolation matches, earning their second top-25 upset win in the past week with a 4-1 win over No. 9 Wake Forest. Although the rankings say Illinois’ last opponent was a step down from the Deacons, No. 12 Tennessee proved to be the more formidable squad, as the Vols moved past the Illini with ease (4-1).

The action started on Friday against Ohio State where the Illini didn’t come out on top of a single match. Deciding to call the match once the Buckeyes hit four points, sophomore Gabrielius Guzauskas and graduates Oliver Okonkwo and Nic Meister’s singles matches were completed, while junior Hunter Heck and sophomores Karlis Ozolins and William Mroz’s matches went unfinished. Okonkwo and sophomore Mathis Debru, as well as Guzauskas and freshman Kenta Miyoshi, each fell 6-2 in doubles while Heck/Ozolins’ match went unfinished while leading 5-2.

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Of the finished matches from Friday, Okonkwo came the closest to a win with his match playing out 6-2, 7-6 (7-3). Meister also put up a strong fight in his second set, forcing his Buckeye counterpart to win seven games but ultimately fell 6-1, 7-5. It was a first day to forget for the team, needing to focus on putting their best foot forward against Wake Forest.

Unfazed by the loss, things were completely different in Illinois’ next match. The Illini dominated against one of the top teams in the country, with Ozolins, Heck and Meister all winning their singles matches in straight sets. Junior Alex Petrov was the only Illini to lose his match while Mroz and Okonkwo’s matches went unfinished. Illinois’ doubles play was crucial, securing the Illini an early 1-0 lead after Debru and Okonkwo picked up a 6-4 win on court one, before Heck and Ozolins clinched the point with a tight 7-5 victory on court two.

With one win and one loss added to the record at this tournament, Illinois still had one more elite opponent in front of them in No. 12 Tennessee. The Illini’s recent success indicated they had a solid chance against the Vols, however, this hope was quickly crushed with the Illini ultimately falling 4-1. After a long and challenging week, Ozolins and Heck were the only Illini to win a set in singles play. Heck had a relatively uncontested 6-1, 6-4 victory on court three while Ozolins was up 6-3, 3-6, 2-1 when his match went unfinished. Mroz and Miyoshi lost all of their sets while Meister had his match go unfinished while trailing 0-6, 5-4. Petrov retired his match on court one, automatically giving Tennesse a point. For doubles, Debru and Okonkwo, as well as Ozolins and Heck, lost their matches. Guzauskas and Miyoshi had the final doubles match go unfinished while leading 5-3.

It was a tough and draining week for Illinois, facing four of the best squads in the country within one week, but now the Illini will get a competition break, as they don’t play again until a doubleheader on March 17th against Abilene Christian and No. 10 Baylor.


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