The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Illinois men’s tennis knocks off No. 8 Duke, No. 17 North Carolina

Senior+Hunter+Heck+celebrates+winning+a+game+against+Duke+on+Friday.
Matt Stepp
Senior Hunter Heck celebrates winning a game against Duke on Friday.

After a week on the road, Illinois men’s tennis returned home to Atkins Tennis Center to host No. 8 Duke and No. 17 North Carolina.

This weekend marked the fourth and fifth straight ranked opponents for the Illini, who proved that they are fierce competitors that deserve to be ranked. Illinois started its weekend off right with a huge victory over Duke. The Illini also handily defeated the Tar Heels for the second time in two weeks.

The Illini geared up for the Blue Devils on Friday evening after a shortened week of training. Former Illini Jeff Laski served as an honorary captain for the weekend and the players put on a show for the Illini great. Laski notched an impressive 108-52 during his four years with the Illini, being named All-Big Ten and All-American in 2000.

Doubles kicked off with packed seats looking forward to the prestigious showdown. Illinois set the tempo quickly as graduate student Oliver Okonkwo and redshirt senior Lucas Horve took down their opponents in just nine games (6-3).

Duke tied the count on court three but Illinois’ dynamic duo of junior Karlis Ozolins and senior Hunter Heck took charge to secure the doubles point (6-3).

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The Illini entered singles play with a 1-0 advantage and Ozolins was the first to strike. His straight-set victory on court one moved his singles win streak to three. Junior William Mroz followed suit on court five and bested his opponent in straight sets as well (6-3, 6-4).

Refusing to go quietly, Duke got on the board thanks to a pair of towering twins. Standing at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 respectively, Jake Krug and Connor Krug both got the best of the Illini in straight sets.

This was just a small bump in the road for Illinois, which needed one of the two remaining matches to swing its way. As Heck and sophomore Kenta Miyoshi battled on courts two and three, they fed on each other’s energy. After dropping the first set, Heck responded by coming out on top of a 12-game thriller to stay alive (7-5). On the flip side, Miyoshi had taken the first set but dropped the second. The match was sealed when Miyoshi cruised to a 6-3 victory in the third set, but head coach Brad Dancer credited Heck’s leadership as what led Illinois to the finish line.

“It was great to get a Friday night win over a very good Duke team … The Krug brothers gave us a run for our money tonight, they took it to us in straight sets so big credit to them,” Dancer said. “Hunter (Heck) went into lockdown mode in his match and led the team to the finish line. When Hunter leads this team, we’re really, really good.”

Despite not affecting the overall outcome, Heck’s match was allowed to play out and he also clinched with a 6-3 third set. Illinois did not have much time to rest on the laurels of its 5-2 victory but did not lose pace the following day. North Carolina was fresh in Illinois’ mind from last week and the players knew what to do in familiar territory.

Heck and Ozolins did what they did best to kick off day two: They claimed a swift victory through 10 games and watched as courts one and three went to tie-breakers. The Illini appeared to be in the driver’s seat on both courts, as Miyoshi and junior Mathis Debru battled back from 5-4 while Okonkwo and Horve overcame a 4-3 deficit, but the Tar Heels had other plans. Miyoshi and Debru were bested by a large margin (7-1) and, despite Okonkwo and Horve putting up more of a fight (7-4), North Carolina claimed the doubles point.

The Illini were far from discouraged by the 1-0 deficit and powered through singles. Heck put on a clinic and flew through his opponent on court two. A pair of 6-2 victories for the Minnesota native evened the count and Ozolins followed suit with a straight-set win of his own (6-3, 6-2). North Carolina tied the match at 2-2 on court four, as Mroz won just four games across his straight-set defeat.

Miyoshi nudged the Illini ahead in two hard-fought sets (6-4, 6-4), and once again they needed just one of two matches to swing their way. Okonkwo and Petrov had both rallied from 7-5 losses in set one before getting comfortable 6-3 wins in set two. To close out the match and secure another upset for the Illini, Okonkwo cruised into another 6-3 win. Petrov’s match went unfinished but he was leading in set three, 4-3.

“We respect North Carolina so much, they are an awesome team,” Dancer said. “I mean they threw us in doubles … Petrov and Okonkwo just kept refusing and those kinds of attitudes are what’s going to help us go through the rest of the season. It was huge to have Okonkwo have that moment.”

 

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Matt Stepp
Matt Stepp, Visual Director
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