Men’s tennis doubles tandems enter season expecting success

The Illinois men’s tennis doubles duo of juniors Ross Guignon and Tim Kopinski is not content to settle with a No. 10 preseason ranking. The 2013-14 ITA rankings, released Friday, gave the Illini their highest ranking in their collegiate careers, and yet they are not taking anything for granted.

“We both were not surprised at all by the rankings,” Kopinski said. “The preseason rankings mean nothing if we don’t play well. We just have to get off to a good start to the season and just get better every week.”

The duo’s top-10 ranking entering the season is just the natural progression for the two — considering their success from last season. Guignon and Kopinski had a 9-7 record together, including a 4-1 record versus Big Ten opponents and 3-2 record against nationally ranked foes.

While the pair was the team’s most successful doubles tandem last season, the duo was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament to the defending doubles champions from Virginia — well short of what both were aiming to accomplish a season ago. Yet, Guignon and Kopinski enter the season with confidence that the lessons learned from last season will put them over the edge to national success.

“Tim and I are extremely comfortable playing together,” Guignon said. “We feel that we have the ability to accomplish more than we did last season, and I’m looking forward to playing well and improving each and every match.”

Much of the pair’s confidence comes from an understanding of what they need to do to improve throughout the year. A common theme heard from both was the need to improve on the pair’s serving. Guignon and Kopinski noted their ability to hold serve was very inconsistent at times last season.

“They play very good tactical doubles tennis, have great chemistry together and their energy is very contagious,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “They have a chance to be an elite doubles team this season, they just need to develop a more consistent serve.”

While Guignon and Kopinski remain the top doubles duo for the Illini, the pair of sophomores Jared Hiltzik and Alex Jesse, ranked No. 56 in the ITA rankings, will be expected to play a greater role in the overall success of the team.

“Alex and I didn’t play very well at the beginning of last season when we were paired up, but we really clicked at the end of the season,” Hiltzik said. “We’re both pretty comfortable playing together, and it’s just a matter building our chemistry back to what it was at the end of last season.”

The pair played together often last season and had a team-best record of 14-5 — though they did not play a nationally ranked opponent. Both expect to have higher-quality draws this season, and thus understand they both have specific aspects of their game that must improve.

“For Alex, he has to get better with his serve in order for me to get opportunities at the net,” Hiltzik said. “I need to play a lot better around the net and finish my volleys more consistently.”

Dancer is also still looking for a slot to place junior Farris Gosea, who found most success last season when paired with Tim Kopiniski — a duo that went 10-2 a season ago. While Dancer knows Gosea has played his best doubles tennis with Kopinski, he stills sees a fluid situation as he notes that Gosea is apt to play well with whomever he is paired with.

“Certainly Farris and Tim have good chemistry together, but I’m still willing to experiment with pairing Farris up some of our other guys like Brian (Page), Julian (Childers) and Blake (Bazarnik),” Dancer said. “Farris has a propensity to play well in doubles at times, its just a matter of finding the right fit for him.”

With the expectations of the upcoming season looming large, the Illini hope to see their doubles play translate into better team outcomes.

“Playing well in doubles can sometimes be the difference between exceeding expectations as a team or falling short,” Jesse said. “All of us have something to prove in doubles, and we’re excited to get back out there and prove ourselves.”

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @danescalona77.