Juniors carry Illini men’s tennis

By Eric Chima

Less than an hour into their 2007 season, the reigning champion Pepperdine men’s tennis team found themselves struggling. A fired up Illinois had already claimed two doubles matches and staked themselves to a lead they would never relinquish.

The Illini followed that fast start by taking the top three singles matches to pull out a 4-3 win. Their top three singles players and top two doubles teams, all juniors, didn’t drop a set in earning all of the team’s points.

“Thank God for juniors,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “Our junior class is going to carry us this year, and I think you saw that (Friday). Usually we’d try to schedule someone that’s not (of Pepperdine’s caliber) for the first match, so I was very nervous coming into this match … and I was very impressed with the top three singles and their composure out there.”

The Illini came out of the gates visibly fired up, earning early breaks in their top two doubles matches. Both teams played sloppy doubles in their first dual matches of the year, but the Illini were able to find some inspired shots to jump in front. At one point, Brandon Davis electrified the Atkins Tennis Center crowd with a brilliant lob as he sprinted away from the net, only to be upstaged on the next court as Ruben Gonzales hit a spectacular dipping passing shot from a dead run.

Gonzales was particularly impressive in winning at first doubles and third singles. At the Florida Invitational a week earlier, Gonzales had struggled to adjust to the college environment after spending the fall semester playing as an amateur in professional tournaments. Against Pepperdine, though, he was in a zone, hitting what Dancer called “some of the biggest forehands Atkins has ever seen” en route to a 6-1, 6-3 win.

“I’m not going to say I played significantly better, but mentally I was definitely a lot better,” Gonzales said. “Still, though, game-wise, there are a lot of things I can do better.”

Ryan Rowe, moving up to second singles this year after playing at fourth or fifth a year ago, served impressively in winning 7-5, 7-5, and Kevin Anderson closed out the match with a 7-6, 6-3 win at first singles over No. 33 Andre Begemann.

But it wasn’t all pretty for the Illini, who lost at second doubles and the bottom three singles spots. Marc Spicijaric and GD Jones, who missed most of the first semester after playing near the top of the Illinois lineup last year, lost three-setters at fourth and fifth singles.

“We’re going to need to take (Jones) down to Wal-Mart and get him some Rust-Oleum for his body,” Dancer said. “He was about as rusty as they come. I think we’re going to be really strong at four, five and six, and we’re going to get a lot better (all-around).”