Men’s tennis to take on defending national champions

By Eric Chima

The Illinois men’s tennis team is accustomed to facing the top teams in the country. This year, they aren’t wasting any time.

The Illini will begin their spring dual match season Friday against Pepperdine, the 2006 national champions and the No. 10 team in the nation. Normally the team would have another week to practice after returning from Winter Break, but coach Brad Dancer said he was eager to meet the defending champs.

“All the speculation, all the other stuff that goes on, and now we get a chance to go out and play some tennis,” Dancer said. “I’d really like some warm-ups, but this is the time Pepperdine could play us. That team will be ready to play, and we’re excited about it.”

Pepperdine lost three of its top players after its championship run, junior Ruben Gonzales said, but still carries a strong team into the spring season, led by last year’s national coach of the year, Adam Steinberg. The two teams last met in March 2005, when Pepperdine beat the then-No. 2 Illini 5-2. Senior GD Jones said he was looking forward to getting another crack at the Waves.

“We’ve played them twice in my college career, and the last time was a very, very close loss,” Jones said. “That was a great match, and of course the defending champions thing adds some tension to the match.”

For their own part, the Illini lost Ryler DeHeart and Pramod Dabir to graduation, leaving their lineup somewhat muddled. Dancer said he would not decide on his seven singles players and three doubles teams until the day of the match, and even his players do not know who their doubles partners might be.

The team’s top two players, though, should be Kevin Anderson and Ryan Rowe, ranked No. 23 and No. 11, respectively. Dancer said freshman Sasha Kharkevitch would probably not be ready to go, so the rest of the lineup is likely to be, in no particular order, Jones; juniors Brandon Davis and Gonzales; sophomore Marc Spicijaric; and freshman Billy Heiser.

Spicijaric is also ranked in the top 100, and Jones was ranked No. 58 before being hurt for most of the fall semester. Pepperdine has only one player in the top 100, with Andre Begemann coming in at No. 33.

It will be Gonzales’ first event with the full team after spending the fall semester playing as an amateur in professional tournaments.

“It’s good to be back with the team again,” Gonzales said. “They’re like my family. I’d be pumped no matter who (we were playing).”