Jordan Knue walks on to men’s tennis

 

 

By Eric Chima

When the Illinois men’s tennis team faced off with seventh-ranked Florida earlier this month, freshman tennis player Jordan Knue spent the doubles portion of the match down with the Net Nuts, cheering on Kevin Anderson and Ryan Rowe. When the singles started, he moved up to the balcony to support Brandon Davis at sixth singles. Two more circuits of Atkins Tennis Center later, the match was over and Knue hadn’t even removed his warm-ups. The closest he came to physical exertion was when he joined the team for post-game stretching.

But simply wearing those warm-ups was a remarkable step for a player that had given up tennis entirely as recently as four years ago. Now, the would-be shooting guard has become an entirely improbable walk-on on one of the best tennis teams in the country.

“It is kind of bizarre,” Knue said with a smile.

Players simply don’t come out of nowhere to walk on to the Illinois tennis team. Coach Brad Dancer’s squad is perennially in the top 10 and has produced five NCAA championships since 2000. It is a squad of just nine players, each of whom was more likely to turn pro out of high school than to walk on to a school team that didn’t recruit him. Each, that is, except Knue.

Illinois tennis was familiar with the Knue name because his sister, Brianna, was a four-year stalwart on the women’s tennis team. But after playing tennis casually as a child, Jordan abandoned the game at age 10 in favor of baseball and basketball. It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school, long after most tennis players have their strokes ingrained, that he even seriously considered tennis.

“(Baseball and basketball) were my sports, but sophomore year I would just play some tennis with friends and I was like ‘I really enjoy doing this, I think I’ll have more fun doing this than playing other sports,'” Knue said.

That year, Knue was no better than the fifth or sixth best player on his high school team. But he gave up his other sports and dedicated himself to tennis, vaulting to the top spot on his team and earning all-state awards his junior and senior years.

Even his improvement, though, wasn’t enough to warrant attention from a large tennis program. Smaller schools approached him, but Jordan grew up in Western Springs, Ill., and always wanted to follow his sister to Champaign. When other coaches called, Knue told them that he had already made up his mind: he was going to Illinois.

“There were some people that kind of expressed interest, but this was pretty much always where I wanted to go,” Knue said. “When I first took up tennis, it wasn’t like ‘I’m doing hits to get a college scholarship.’ My goal was always to go to Illinois, and that’s still my number one goal. If I can do tennis, that’s great.”

Knue e-mailed Dancer, then ran into him while attending one of Brianna’s matches. Dancer promised him a chance to try out in the fall, but no more. Then, after graduating in May, Knue had a disappointing summer of tennis and considered giving up the sport altogether.

“(It wasn’t until) a couple weeks before I came down to school that I for sure decided I was going to give it a shot,” Knue said. “I had nothing to lose. I’d rather know that I was not good enough than wonder for the rest of my life.”

Knue hit balls with Dancer a few times early in the fall, but had trouble finding time to practice on his own. So when Dancer called and offered him a shot in a small tournament against other college players, Knue was more than a little worried. He managed to squeak through a few early matches, then came up against Ryan Rowe, Illinois’ No. 2 player and one of the defending NCAA doubles champions. The 6-0, 6-2 drubbing was a rough introduction to Illinois tennis.

“I pretty much went into that tournament cold, ended up having a decent first couple matches, kind of gutted my way through it, and then I played Ryan,” Knue laughed. “It was kind of an abrupt exposure to the guys.”

Knue’s future was up in the air for a couple months afterwards. But fate worked in his favor when Dancer realized that the team might be short on healthy bodies and asked him to join the team on a trip to Florida. Within days, he was officially on the team.

“When we realized we might be a little low on numbers we decided it was a good move for our team to add him to the squad,” Dancer said. “We had a lot of time to sit and think about that decision and also observe Jordan a little bit. I think we liked everything we saw from him in terms of student, athlete and work ethic.”

Knue relishes his new role, even though he is, for the moment, something of a glorified cheerleader. He has not played in a dual match, nor does he think he will for the rest of the year. But though he is raw and skinny, he has shot up to 6-foot-4 and says he is still growing. With time, he hopes to catch up to his more accomplished teammates.

“I know there’s a gap between me and the others,” Knue said. “My results didn’t really warrant attention from a program like this. In many respects it’s my upside that’s my selling point right now.”

Knue has gone from a typical freshman two months ago to a varsity athlete, with all the benefits the position entails. But he says he is still a student first, and Dancer said Knue escaped the usual freshman teasing because his teammates respected his intelligence.

“If you want help, you’ve got to be nice,” Rowe joked. “It’s hard to give a guy a hard time when he’s such a good guy and he works so hard.”

Knue has garnered his share of nicknames – including, at times, his sister’s name. He has slipped well into the chemistry of the team, but still finds it hard to believe that he is a part of one of the top 10 teams in the country.

“If somebody had told me three years ago, with the skill level I was, that I would be on the fifth or sixth best team in the country in college, I would have said they were crazy,” Knue said. “The reason I play is that I enjoy it. That was the reason I started playing it, and that’s the way I still am. I’m just going to take it where it goes.”