Kopinski’s focus on a calmer, more stress-free brand of tennis pays dividends

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

Tim Kopinski was merely looking for a respectable start to his junior season and the 2013-14 Illinois men’s tennis campaign. But by the middle of the afternoon on Sunday, he had put together one of his better weekends as an Illini.

At the season-opening meet at the OFCC Invitational in Olympia Fields, Ill., Kopinski would go undefeated in singles play with a record of 4-0. His strong season debut allowed him to be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“I wasn’t really thinking about winning Most Outstanding Player at the time,” he said. “I was just focusing on my own matches and not worrying about too much else.”

For Kopinski, the success he had over the weekend was somewhat unexpected — he had not been impressed with his play in the weeks leading up to the meet.

“I was not playing sharp tennis at all,” he said. “It wasn’t until a few days before, during practice, that everything started to click, and that carried pretty well into the weekend.”

Much of the success Kopinski has attained throughout the weekend can be attributed to his renewed focus on a calmer, more stress-free mentality on the court.

“I tend to be a very anxious tennis player, very wired and with a lot of energy,” he said. “It’s very important for me to stay calm during the match because if I do not, I make lots of uncharacteristic mistakes. Staying calm just allows me to clear my head and remain focused on the match at hand.”

Kopinski also noted that his on-the-court mentality has been inconsistent and is something he has emphasized fixing this season. These inconsistencies in his approach throughout his collegiate career, he said, have kept him from reaching his maximum potential — evidenced by his 22-18 record in singles play last season.

“It’s been very sporadic in the past; some matches I would compete with a calm mentality, and others I would play anxiously with too much emotion,” he said. “(Head coach) Brad (Dancer) has preached a lot to me on the importance of being a professional on and off the tennis court, and that definitely has made a big difference for me entering this season.”

Though just one meet into the season, Kopinski has already characterized his early success as a by-product of what he has learned in his first two seasons at Illinois.

“I played tennis matches over the last year and over the summer, and, win or lose, they help me figure out something new about myself,” he said. “I take all those experiences with me, and I think they helped me out a lot in this tournament.”

Kopinski noted that his success was all the more important to him, especially considering the competition he and the team faced at Olympia Fields over the weekend. The competition included perennial national powers, including the defending national champion Virginia, along with Kentucky and Wake Forest.

“I think that shows that I belong in the same category as a lot of the top players,” he said. “In the past, I have always seen myself as a level behind those players, but I think after this weekend it shows that I can compete with the best.”

As a junior — and one of the older players on the team — he has realized his successful play sets a standard that the younger players will strive to achieve. Although Kopinski did not refer to himself as a leader, he said that he hopes the expectations he sets for himself serve as an example for the younger players on the team to follow.

Kopinski will gladly take the success he had over the weekend, yet he knows there’s a great deal of progress yet to be made. He said that he still needs to improve his serve in the weeks and months ahead.

Dancer expects Kopinski to continue working to reach his potential.

“Tim is a tremendously diligent, motivated and hard-working player for us,” he said. “This is a very nice feather in his cap, and I’m extremely confident that he knows what to do to get better.”

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