Illini of the Week: Dennis Nevolo

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Illini junior Dennis Nevolo believes that he’s playing the best tennis of his life.

In fact, there’s not even a doubt in his mind. Period.

The Gurnee, Ill., native proved it over the weekend, when he went 3-2 at the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships in Flushing, N.Y. The tournament featured 32 of the nation’s top tennis players for the No. 26 player in the country to go up against.

Nevolo started the tournament on a sour note, losing to Louisville’s Austin Childs, the preseason No. 10 player in the nation, in straight sets 6-3, 6-3. After that match, Nevolo competed in the back draw of the tournament, where he would excel.

His next match was against Virginia’s Alex Domijan, who was the tournament’s top-seeded player. Domijan is considered the ITA’s No. 1-ranked player among freshmen and newcomers and entered the match having just won the D’Novo/ITA All-American Tennis Championships.

But Nevolo, who said he had never lost to Domijan dating back to the time they were playing juniors tennis, responded with a 7-6 (4), 6-0 hard-fought win in what he and head coach Brad Dancer thought may have been his best win during the fall season.

“I was just a little bit more relaxed,” Nevolo said. “After the loss, I was really frustrated, and it might have just calmed me down a little bit. I just learned a lot from that loss and came out swinging away and just kinda broke him down.”

With the first set tied at three games apiece, Nevolo was unable to break Domijan, despite having five opportunities. He didn’t panic though, and won the next point and then went on to win it with a tiebreaker. Nevolo then cruised to an easy win in the second set to advance.

“It was weird, it kinda felt like a practice match,” Nevolo said. “Everything that I had been working on came out, and I was really pleased to play the way I played.”

Nevolo then picked up a three-set win over Georgia’s Will Spencer before having another tough task in playing Tennessee’s John-Patrick Smith, the No. 1 ranked player in the country. The two players had two previous collegiate matchups with each player winning one, but Smith bested Nevolo in the most recent one in three sets.

History would not repeat itself though, as Nevolo was able to top him in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3.

“He really, really challenged (Smith’s) return serve,” Dancer said. “Dennis isn’t usually a guy that goes after you on the serve, and I think he came out and said, ‘I’m gonna challenge your return,’ and he did a great job of that.”

In the finals of the back draw was a familiar foe, Kentucky’s Eric Quigley.

It’s always Eric Quigley.

In the past, Nevolo has had a rough time against the No. 8-ranked player in the nation, losing the previous four matches between the two. He came up just short again, this time losing 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.

The two players battled hard in the first set, with Nevolo having the chance to put it away at 5-4. But he couldn’t execute his serve placement the way he wanted as Quigley went on to break him. He went on to win the second set, but in the third, the ball bounced Quigley’s way.

“The first two sets I definitely feel I was outplaying him for most of the time,” Nevolo said. “I wish I could take that game back at 5-4 when I served for it. It was just a tough match, he still played tough and, there were moments he did some good things, but definitely this time around it felt like the match was more on my terms, which is definitely a positive thing.”

Despite the loss, Dancer was impressed with Nevolo’s aggressiveness, which he thought was the best of the tournament.

“He took the match to Quigley the whole time,” Dancer said. “I think he controlled the match for the most part, and he didn’t win the match, but when you control the match you just kinda walk away like ‘Yeah, I should’ve probably taken care of some things out there.’

“He didn’t serve great down the stretch of each set, but he really came out swinging and came out playing the style we see him playing and that was exciting to see,” Dancer added.

Nevolo’s recent success has not been limited to the latest tournament. Throughout the fall season, he played in multiple prestigious tournaments and earned an overall record of 13-4.

The momentum he is building now can help in next week’s JSM Illinois Challenger and in the spring when the season starts back up again. Until then, he will continue to fine-tune his game, an area in which senior teammate Abe Souza has seen Nevolo make great strides in.

“He has a little more attention to what he’s working on,” Souza said. “Before, there was always that desire to work hard and get better, but it was just a little bit without structure. Now, I think he’s really honed-in on what he needs to work on in his serve and discipline in points, and I think it’s really come out in matches.”