Illini alumnus plays tennis against former coach

Between winning the Sunset Moulding Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Challenger in June and advancing to the semifinal of the Nielsen United States Tennis Association (USTA) Pro Tennis Championship two weeks ago, Ryler DeHeart has had some good luck during his professional tennis career.

But what the former Illlini athlete really gets special satisfaction from is defeating Illinois men’s tennis head coach Brad Dancer.

“That’s what I’m most excited about,” DeHeart joked. “I feel like I’m playing a lot better now, and I finally beat Brad convincingly in the baseline games with a sprained ankle.”

While enjoyable, DeHeart claimed that last Thursday’s win during practice at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex was not as uncommon as Dancer would like people to believe.

“I usually beat him, but today was especially satisfying,” DeHeart added.

DeHeart’s training match against Dancer came toward the end of a rare week off in Champaign.

The break was much appreciated by DeHeart, whose career has recently taken him to French Open qualifying, tournaments in California, main draw action at Wimbledon as well as competition in Ireland and Chicago.

Although his schedule takes him all over the world, DeHeart consistently finds the time to return to his alma mater, The University of Illinois.

“I’ve been travelling a lot, (so) I don’t get to spend a lot of time (in Champaign) obviously, but I love coming back when I get the chance,” DeHeart said.

That is why DeHeart spent his time off practicing at Atkins Tennis Center with Dancer, friend Kevin Anderson (also a former Illini tennis player) and a host of current Illini players.

“I still like to be a part of the team and help the guys out whenever I can, and it helps me as well,” DeHeart said.

According to DeHeart, Dancer’s role on the team is instrumental in establishing the close ties between Illini past and present.

“It’s really good that Brad really encourages us to come back. Not a lot of coaches do that,” DeHeart said. “He really makes us feel welcome, even after we’ve graduated. You see Kevin (Anderson) here every time he’s off a week, or GD (Jones) and Ruben (Gonzales), so all of us get out here and we feel like it helps tremendously with our game.”

Jones, who recently competed at the Nielsen USTA Pro Tennis Championship, along with DeHeart and a host of other Illini, said that people should not be surprised if they see multiple former Illini competing in the same tournament.

“We’re all pretty close friends, so it’s not really a case of just running into them. We’re all pretty close and keep in touch, so they’re more than that,” he said.

While Dancer likes having his former players hanging around Champaign regardless, he also sees the value in exposing his current players to professionals in the industry.

“I think it’s really one of the treasures of this program,” he said. “Just to have a group of guys so focused on their careers and … focused on their goals in life, they’re a tremendous influence for our current guys.”

With his busy schedule, DeHeart’s time in Champaign has already come and gone.

DeHeat is currently competing in the Comerica Bank Challenger in Aptos, California.

But while he is no longer in Champaign, he can expect support from the tennis program wherever he goes, according to Dancer.

“We talk all the time with all the guys, and I think our current team members follow these guys every match they play,” Dancer said.