Tennis facility renovation to start in May

By Eric Chima

The Illinois tennis program has a bright future – not on the court, but in the courts themselves. The program is planning a huge renovation to Atkins Tennis Center, including 16 new tennis courts and all the best amenities: a new entryway, locker rooms, lights and scoreboard. The final product could be the best collegiate tennis facility in the country, and only one thing stands in its way.

“We’re just waiting for the chickens to move,” head coach Brad Dancer said.

The land intended for the new courts is currently occupied by several buildings from the University’s poultry facility, an impediment that has stymied development for over two years. Now, though, money is finally on the way to give new homes to both the birds and the tennis team, and maybe to help bring the NCAA championships to Champaign.

Chancellor Richard Herman pledged money that allowed the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, which runs the poultry facility, get started on a new building and vacate the offending ones by the end of 2006. Bulldozing has already begun on the old buildings, and if all goes well, associate athletic director Dana Brenner said, the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics could begin work on the renovation itself by the end of May.

If everyone involved had their way, the project would have been completed long ago. The DIA raised the money for the renovation more than two years ago, Brenner said, and junior Ryan Rowe recalled that the team was promoting the project back when he was a recruit. But the money never came in for ACES to move the poultry facility, and the whole project grounded to a halt.

“It’s kind of become a little bit of a joke between us, you know, that we’ve been waiting for it so long,” Rowe said.

Ralph M”ller, the associate director of operations within ACES, stressed that the college was as eager to move as the tennis program was to get their new courts. The old poultry facility was a mixture of buildings that were erected between 1940 and 1970, and some of its maintenance structures were out of date. The new facility will make manure and feed management much easier and greatly improve ventilation, M”ller said.

“What this is for the University is a win-win situation,” M”ller said. “The DIA is getting new tennis courts and the college of ACES will get a new poultry research facility. From an animal welfare standpoint, it will be much better.”

Brenner, too, stressed that the college of ACES had been accommodating and helpful throughout. But while the tennis program received a donation from a local businessman named Shad Kahn, whose name will adorn the renovated center, ACES has been forced to come up with the money on its own. The college doesn’t have the kind of funding and revenue production that the DIA has, and the competition for money within the University can be heated.

“They would have loved to been off (the land) two or three years ago,” Brenner said. “Some of their facilities are really antiquated, and it truly is just a funding issue for them. They are not villains at all.”

It took a pledge straight from the chancellor to get the project off the ground, and the DIA has agreed to contribute a portion of the $3 million it will take to build the new poultry facility. In return, ACES hurried to vacate two buildings by January 1 so that the DIA could demolish them and begin work on the renovation. M”ller said the rush had caused some extra work for the college, but that it would be worth it when the facility is complete.

“We need to meet very often to keep the planning phase going,” M”ller said. “We’re going to have a little bit of (work to do). But we don’t mind doing this because we’re getting a new facility.”

Construction has already begun on the new poultry buildings, Brenner said, and plans for the Atkins renovation are about 50 percent complete. Eventually, 25 different buildings will be demolished to make room for a host of additions: the Atkins renovation, an expansion of the softball facility and a new horseshoe drive with added parking. The final Atkins Tennis Center, under director Jim Tressler, will have 12 new hard courts, four clay courts and vastly improved lighting.

It will be the kind of facility, an excited Tressler said, that could host one of the biggest events in the country.

“Our goal has always been to host the NCAAs,” Tressler said.

When asked what the renovation will do for the program, “NCAAs” is one of the first words on everybody’s lips. Schools host the annual national championship on a rotating basis, but not many are equipped to handle the number of matches that come with the tournament. Illinois applied to host the NCAA championships about five years ago, Brenner said, but were denied in part because they didn’t know when the facility would be ready. Since then, the NCAA has administered sanctions that prohibit the Illini from hosting postseason tournaments as long as they use Chief Illiniwek as their mascot, but Tressler said he was confident the issue would be resolved by the time Atkins was completed. If that’s the case, the Illini will be able to boast anywhere from 12 to 20 championship-level courts, added parking, scoreboards, fantastic May weather and the prestige that the program currently carries – making them a favorite, Tressler said, to host the tournament sometime around 2010.

“I think it’s very realistic,” Brenner said. “Having the facility and having the community behind us and being in close proximity to the Indianapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis airports … We’d be a great venue for it.”

The renovations could also help Dancer on the recruiting front. Though clay courts are never used in college competition, their presence will be appealing to potential professionals that will have to play on clay after they graduate. Along with the combination of indoor and outdoor surfaces, Illinois will be able to offer recruits some of the most diverse on-court experience of any school in the country.

For Rowe, the promise of a new facility was a bonus, but not the incentive that made him come to Illinois. Though he will probably have graduated by the time the renovations are complete, Rowe said he was excited to see the project finally completed.

“I didn’t come just because the facility was coming, I came because of the people in the program,” Rowe said. “It’s definitely not been something I’m upset about. It’s going to be a great thing for University of Illinois tennis, and I’m looking forward to coming back as an (alumnus).”

To everyone else involved, the upcoming move represents the progress they have been waiting for all this time. Tressler will soon have almost twice as many courts at his disposal. M”ller and the rest of ACES will have their new facility on south campus. And Brenner and the rest of the tennis program will be able to go before the coaches and administrators that make up the NCAA committee and show them one of the finest tennis centers in the country.

“When we presented to them before, we were talking about a facility that didn’t exist,” Brenner said. “By May you’ll be able to see that, yeah, there’s a building there. We’ll take another run at that committee, and (this) time I think we’ll be successful.”