Illini of the Decade: #10 Kevin Anderson and Ryan Rowe

They could be called the perfect pair. No, not Bert and Ernie. Not peanut butter and jelly, either. No, the duo here is Kevin Anderson and Ryan Rowe, the most successful doubles tandem the Illinois men’s tennis program has ever seen.

The pair had the talent and chemistry to put together two consecutive postseason runs like never before. After winning the 2006 NCAA doubles championship as sophomores, the two returned to the title match the following year and recorded a runner-up finish, becoming the first doubles team in NCAA history to have back-to-back finals appearances with the same partner since the current format was introduced in 1977.

Individually, Anderson and Rowe are two of the Illinois men’s tennis program’s greatest players.

Anderson advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA singles championship in 2007 and holds an 80-18 career singles record, while Rowe finished with a 96-35 singles record — good for No. 13 in school history in career wins. Former Illini head coach Craig Tiley, who recruited the players and coached them in their freshman season, described Anderson and Rowe as “relentless” and “a great weapon,” respectively.

Together, they were on a whole different level.

The pair compiled a 50-9 record in doubles play from 2005-07, finishing 2006 ranked No. 1 and 2007 ranked No. 5.

The duo couldn’t defend its doubles crown in 2007, finishing in second place despite serving for the match in the second set and having a match point in the third set.

Had Anderson not left Illinois to play professionally following his junior season, the duo may have come close to eclipsing the school’s doubles records for wins in a season and in a career.

“The biggest thing is that we got along so well on the court, really,” Anderson said. “We understood each other so well … and both being such tall players (both at least 6-foot-5), we were really tough to beat.”

The whole team flourished in Anderson and Rowe’s time, too. Through its junior season, the pair was part of three teams in the top 10 in school history for most wins in a season. In 2007, the two propelled Illinois to a national runner-up finish, losing to Georgia in the national championship. The next season, Rowe led another 20-win team as a senior.

But as much as Rowe and Anderson made their mark on college tennis history, they shaped each other’s personalities just as much. Nobody had a better view of that than former associate coach and current head coach Brad Dancer.

“They had a profound effect on each other,” Dancer said. “All the things that Anderson did for Rowe in terms of work ethic, commitment and professionalism — Rowe brought that swagger and confidence to Kevin a little bit.”

Anderson and Rowe committed to Illinois for similar reasons — the team’s success, the coaching staff and the accomplishments of alumni among them — but took very different routes to get there.

Anderson, a Johannesburg, South Africa, native, had a much larger adjustment to make than Rowe, who is from Moline, Ill. Fortunately for Anderson, though, he had little trouble getting used to the sporadic weather of the Midwest.

“I’d always heard a lot about Illinois while I was being recruited and sort of always felt that was where I wanted to go,” Anderson said. “It could have been a bit of a change from South Africa, but I felt I adjusted almost right away.”

Rowe was certain he’d have no problem adjusting and knew Champaign was the place for him. In fact, he decided he didn’t even need to take any recruiting visits to pick his school.

“It was close to home, it was a great program and I knew a lot of the guys going in,” Rowe said. “It was an opportunity for me to go to a great program with a coach that was so successful (in Tiley).”

Once at Illinois, it didn’t take much time for the players to notice their similarities and what kind of team they could form on the court.

“We both came in and needed the whole college experience,” Rowe said. “We kind of bonded through that. And us being two big guys — me lefty and him righty — and he’s definitely a great player, so the chemistry was really good.”

Leaving the University with a year of eligibility remaining didn’t mean Anderson didn’t enjoy his time there and the family the Illini tennis program has become.

“It was really an incredible experience — not only just on the court and the improvements I was able to make but also … the team we had, the community Illinois tennis has been able to experience,” said Anderson, who is currently ranked No. 133 on the ATP Tour.

The community Anderson talks about is the bond that he, Rowe and other former Illini share with each other and with the current team. Junior Abe Souza, who played one season with Rowe, said he enjoys being able to practice with some of the program’s most decorated players whenever they can make it back to Champaign.

“It was pretty exciting to play on a team with a guy who’s had so many big wins and came through so many times,” Souza said.

Souza said the “goofy” Rowe, who now coaches players in Chicago, helped out with his serve while he was still at Illinois.

“It’s a ton of fun to have those guys around, to have them as part of the program,” Dancer said. “They’re mentors and leaders for the rest of these guys, which is great.”

Anderson and Rowe shared many stories from their time as Illini — such as the time they wore suits a few sizes too small to the Assembly Hall when they were honored for their 2006 title — but the most memorable times were from the countless hours they spent on the court.

“We just really enjoyed playing together,” Rowe said. “We always had a lot of fun, no matter what was happening. We always took it really serious, but we really enjoyed being on the court together. We became really close friends, and that was the biggest thing — we trusted each other.”