Colorful crowd sparks Illinois tennis

By Eric Chima

Jerry Makowski, Texas A&M;’s top tennis player, could be forgiven if he did not match the form he showed last year in upsetting Illinois’ Ryler DeHeart. That was at home, in front of his maroon-clad fans. On Saturday, he had to play in front of a gorilla.

With a raucous, costumed crowd at their backs, the Illini turned a tough match into a convincing rout in swatting Makowski and the Aggies 6-1 at the Atkins Tennis Center.

Illinois’ top singles player, Kevin Anderson, led the way by dissecting Makowski 6-1, 6-1 at DeHeart’s old first singles spot.

“I think Kevin just had the perfect game plan out there,” Dancer said. “Ryler played into Makowski’s strength and played too fast last year. So we said we were going to lay back and … force Makowski to feel like he had to win some points himself. A lot of people talk about Kevin being all serve, but I think he showed tonight that he’s got a great brain on him.”

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The gorilla was joined in the crowd by a large cardboard Block I and a host of body-painted, caped figures as part of a promotional costume contest. Even DeHeart showed up for the rematch, clad in Illini paraphernalia and a George W. Bush mask.

“The crowd tonight, they were awesome,” Dancer said. “The body paint and the costumes and everything turned this into a carnival atmosphere, and it’s so much fun for our guys to play in that.”

Ryan Rowe finished minutes after Anderson with a convincing 6-2, 6-3 win at second singles. Rowe and Anderson have been rocks at the top of the Illinois lineup since the dual match season began, dropping just two full sets between them.

“I think with my role on the team changing, playing at the top of the lineup a little more … I’ve been forced to grow up in a couple areas,” Rowe said. “My mental game has gotten a lot better over the last year.”

Marc Spicijaric added a convincing win at fifth singles and GD Jones notched his first straight-set win of the year at the fourth spot. After Brandon Davis suffered the team’s lone hiccup, losing at sixth singles, Ruben Gonzales finished the match in dramatic fashion by saving four match points to gut out a 4-6, 6-1 (12-10) win over Conor Pollock at third singles.

In doubles, Anderson and Rowe, the defending NCAA doubles champions, played together for the first time this year. The two won an easy 8-4 match and Spicijaric and Jones won at third doubles to take the doubles point for the Illini.

The Illini avenged last year’s loss even though the Aggies returned their entire lineup from 2006.

“We have demonstrated an improvement from last year in our mental toughness, because they had the same players that beat us last year in A&M;,” Jones said. “I think a combination of the crowd and our mental strength showed through tonight.”