Souza’s confidence boost leads to boost in performance

His serve may not be the fastest and his play may not be the most exciting, but junior Abe Souza of the Illinois men’s tennis squad will give his team an unquestionably great effort every time he steps on the court.

Souza has been a consistent force for the No. 13 Illini, winning 10 straight matches and going 7-0 to begin the dual-play season. Assistant coach Marcos Asse has noticed great improvements in his serving, backhand and defense.

“You tell him one time and it usually takes him a week of working and struggling on it, and then he’s better,” Asse said. “His defense has just gotten by far the best on the team. His velocity (on serves) has gotten bigger, his kick serve has gotten bigger, his overhead used to be a weakness and I can’t recall the last time I saw him miss one in a match or a practice.”

Coaches and teammates have noticed that Souza’s great effort is not just on the court. Asse said Souza regularly e-mails coaches after matches, shedding light on what he and the Illini did well and voicing what he thinks the team needs to work on.

“Just this last weekend he wrote something about the team and where the team is at. This is nothing we ask him to do or is required of him, and he just takes it upon himself to see that his game is in check and that anything he sees that he can help out,” Asse said.

Teammates and coaches have noticed Souza’s leadership abilities, seeing that he is consistently vocal throughout practices and his consistent effort pushes everybody.

“Guys definitely look up to him. He’ll encourage and people will listen to him,” senior Marek Czerwinski said. “His work ethic is one of the biggest things. I think he’s one of the hardest workers easily on the team.”

Souza, who usually plays at No. 4 or 5 singles, credited his early-season success to his rise in confidence. In a match against then-No. 2 Virginia earlier this season, Souza was the only Illini to win. After dropping the first set 4-6 to No. 16 Jarmere Jenkins, Souza rallied back to win the next two 6-3, 10-8.

“The confidence has just been building, I believe more and more in myself and play better and better. I don’t think it was anything specific that I wasn’t capable of doing before,” Souza said.

Czerwinski has noticed Souza’s boost in confidence as well.

“He’s been working on a lot of the same stuff that he’s been working on for a while, but now it’s just clicking together,” Czerwinski said. “He’s just become a lot more aggressive and just really comfortable with his game and it’s really showing. I think the mental part of it is coming through, and that’s one of the big keys of pulling out of close matches.”

In the latest ITA singles rankings, Souza has reached a career-high rank of No. 57, due in large part of his victories over then-No. 16 Jenkins and then-No. 83 David Ayoun of Fresno State.

“It’s a good way to see your hard work pay off,” Souza said.

Asse added that Souza still has to work on his game but thinks he will continue to improve.

“Improvements don’t happen gradually, they happen in steps,” Asse said. “While he’s very confident out on the court and thinks he’s going to win every match he walks into, he is still pretty level-headed and knows, ‘I can get much better.’”