Illini men’s tennis co-hosts invite in Olympia Fields, Ill.

By Christopher Kennedy

Illinois tennis player Aleks Vukic, from Sydney, said he loved his first taste of college tennis.

“I enjoyed it a lot. I played a Georgia guy at Georgia with the whole of his team watching, cheering him on, but I loved it,” Vukic said. “Even though they weren’t cheering for me, I loved it.”

After a semi-finals appearance at last weekend’s Southern Intercollegiate Championships, Vukic get another experience of NCAA tennis in his second tournament at the Fighting Illini Invitational this weekend in Olympia Fields, Illinois. Four of the six teams competing finished in the ITA Top 25 last season: Notre Dame, Memphis, Kentucky and the host, Illini. Memphis knocked off the Illini in the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA tournament, while the Illini beat Notre Dame and Kentucky in dual meets last year. NC State and Miami (FL) will round out the field.

While some sports start the season with smaller events to get athletes back in the swing of things, this weekend, the men’s tennis team will jump straight in against big-name competition.

“That’s what our program is,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “I think that’s what people come here for. They want to be exposed to playing against good players. That’s why we do it.”

This will be the Illini’s eighth year playing at Olympia Fields Country Club just outside of Chicago. Dancer said he’s grateful for the chance to co-host the event and play at such a prestigious club. Dancer also said hosting an invite near Chicago helps recruiting, as several Illini come from the area.

Illinois will have four players competing at Olympia Fields: Vukic, fellow freshman Toshiki Matsuya, ITA preseason No. 6 Jared Hiltzik and No. 44 Tim Kopinski. Kopinski says the more matches he gets to play, the  better he performs, so playing in the early season invite provides a chance to get his match count up against quality opponents.

The OFCC/Fighting Illini Invite is also one of the few collegiate meets in the country played on clay courts. Kopinski said it helps that the Illini have prepared for the unusual surface by practicing on the Champaign Country Club’s clay courts, but Vukic will feel be right in his element.

“I went to Spain in January (and) February, and basically for six months, I played on clay, so this feels like home right now,” Vukic said. “I’m looking forward to playing some Americans on clay, that’s for sure.”

While it’s an early season meet, Dancer knows what he wants to see from the Illini.

“I want them to compete their tails off,” Dancer said. “I want them to represent their school with class, dignity, toughness (and) sportsmanship.”

Christopher can be reached at [email protected]