Men’s tennis team dominates Kentucky

A biting wind greeted the men’s tennis team in its return to Atkins Tennis Center on Wednesday.

Despite less than favorable conditions in the outdoor contest, No. 11 Illinois’ (17-5, 6-0 Big Ten) rackets caught fire early and stayed hot in a 4-3 victory over visiting No. 14 Kentucky (14-8, 4-4 SEC).

Key tiebreakers littered the scorecard in Illinois’ first home match since March 7.

The No. 18-ranked duo of Dennis Nevolo and Ruan Roelofse pulled off a tight 9-8 (7-3) win over Kentucky’s No. 19 Bruno Agostinelli and Brad Cox at No. 1 doubles to give the Illini a lead they never relinquished.

“Me and Ruan were constantly back and forth the entire set, and we got to the tiebreaker, and we really just knuckled down,” Nevolo said. “We played a great point, got a good overrule, and then things started rolling.”

Straight-set victories by Roy Kalmanovich and Nevolo on courts one and two, respectively, built Illinois’ lead to 3-1 and set the stage for Marek Czerwinski’s dramatic 6-2, 7-6 (7-5) singles tiebreaker win that sealed the victory.

With weather conditions that barely topped the required 50-degree minimum for outdoor play, the contest marked the team’s first ever dual match on the newly constructed Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.

But after a five-game road trip, many of the players were just happy to be back in Urbana.

“It was a little more relaxing, without the travel and the bus and everything,” Nevolo said. “So it definitely felt a little more comfortable being back home.”

A sparse weekday crowd braved the elements on an afternoon where “comfortable” may not have been the word of choice for players and coaches alike. Though head coach Brad Dancer expects “rave reviews on how the courts play,” Mother Nature certainly made the Illini work for their eighth-straight home victory.

“(The weather) was definitely a big factor for the match,” Kalmanovich said. “I feel we’re real tough, and we’re real fit and we knew what it was going to be like heading into today’s match. It was going to cold, really windy, and we were all just trying not to focus on the wind because we know our opponent is struggling with the same conditions we are.”

The Illini now face a quick turnaround as Big Ten rivals Penn State and Ohio State visit Atkins for matches on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 5 in the country and currently share the top spot in the Big Ten with Illinois.

For the Illini to have continued success down the spring’s stretch run against some of the nation’s best, Dancer knows his team will have to capture the consistency and determination that was on display against the Wildcats.

“I think this was one of our better matches as far as cohesiveness, everyone coming out and getting the right start in all the doubles, and the right start in all the singles,” Dancer said. “For us to be an elite, elite team that’s going to contend for titles, it’s nothing fancy, we just have to carry that focus all the way through matches.”