Anderson to face Levine for bragging rights

 

 

By Eric Chima

Two top collegiate tennis players, separated by two years and from two different countries, Kevin Anderson and Jesse Levine have still managed to see all too much of each other. They have passed each other at tournaments, considered playing doubles together on the pro tour and were very nearly college teammates.

On Tuesday, though, they will be opponents, as Levine and his No. 7 Florida Gators meet Anderson and the No. 6 Illinois men’s tennis team. The two will be the marquee match-up, representing not just the best of each team but also two of the most promising future stars that college tennis has to offer.

“You’re looking at two guys that have some of the brightest professional careers ahead of them of all the guys in college tennis,” Dancer said. “It’s going to be a great, great match.”

Levine and Anderson are now the two highest-ranked college players in the Association of Tennis Professionals world rankings, at No. 383 and No. 517, respectively. Their achievements read like a point-counterpoint debate: the freshman Levine achieved his success at a younger age, but Anderson built his ranking up while attending college full time while Levine took the fall off to play tournaments. Anderson is a two-time All-American and an NCAA doubles champion, but Levine was the first to crack the biggest professional milestone, winning his first two matches in an elite-level ATP event just a few weeks ago.

But their shared history goes beyond credentials. Dancer heavily recruited Levine, who came to a match in Champaign and hit balls with Anderson in the summer. Levine said the two even considered playing in pro tournaments as doubles partners. Had he joined the Illini, Levine would have been the team’s prize recruit and could be competing with Anderson for the top spot in an already-stacked lineup. Instead, Levine spurned the Illini to be closer to his family in Florida.

“I know the (Illinois) program is unbelievable, but being close to home made the decision a lot easier,” Levine said. “My family can come to matches whenever they want now.”

What’s left appears to be a one-way tension between the Illini and Levine, as the freshman tries to put the recruiting process behind him while the team uses it as fuel.

“It was an interesting decision on his part,” said Anderson, who joked that he had burned the piece of paper with Levine’s phone number on it. “Hopefully he’ll see what a mistake he made when they come to play us (tonight).”

Just a few weeks into his college career, Levine has helped Florida join Illinois in the collegiate elite by taking down No. 2 Baylor in their third match of the season. He has yet to lose a set in two matches and already earned himself SEC player of the week honors with a win over Baylor’s Lars Poerschke, who has been ranked as high as No. 1 in the country. But, like Anderson, Levine acknowledges that the college experience is a stepping-stone to bigger things.

“That’s obviously my main goal: to play professional tennis,” Levine said. “Four years is a long time. I don’t know how many years I’ll stay, but I don’t think four.”

The professional-amateur debate is one that follows both players. Anderson came to Illinois, in part, because his native South Africa had few opportunities for aspiring professional tennis players, and college in America was the best opportunity to develop his game. Now that Anderson is achieving success on the pro tour, he and Dancer talk constantly about how he should eventually turn pro.

“We want Kevin Anderson to be out playing professionally, winning matches, representing himself and the University of Illinois,” Dancer said. “He’s going to be a great ambassador for us in the future. But I don’t think (he and Jesse) have broken through yet. They’ve done great, but there are five guys (out of college) in the top 100 or 150 that are similar age to Kevin, and he’s not there yet. If he can do that next summer, I think it’s a good decision for him to turn pro.”

In the meantime, both players are trying to mingle college life with the occasional professional tournament. Even when they are able to make the time in their collegiate tennis schedules to attend a professional event, the spectre of homework looms.

“Most of the tournaments I’ve played in were over the summer, because in the school year it’s tough,” Anderson said. “When you’re done playing, and the (professionals) are relaxing, you’ve got to get into your schoolwork.”

Anderson and Levine both said the college experience, playing for a team and a school, was drastically different from playing for themselves at a professional event. They have played in the same professional tournaments many times, but never played each other in a real match – though Anderson is quick to mention that he usually advances deeper. When they finally meet on Tuesday, the atmosphere will make it different from any of their professional experiences.

“You can throw it all out the window when they go head-to-head in a dual match,” Dancer said. “I think the thing that could make the difference is the Net Nuts. If they can get out and by their typical loud selves, I think that would be a big difference for Kevin right there.”