Men’s tennis sends two to ITA championships

By Christopher Kennedy

While it’s early in the season, it’s time for the first national championship tournament of the year. The Illini men’s tennis team is in Tulsa, Okla., for the ITA Men’s All-American Championships. Jared Hiltzik is back after a quarterfinal appearance last year. Tim Kopinski will play in both the singles and doubles bracket for his first tournament of the year with Ross Guignon, the preseason No. 2 doubles pair in the country.

At last year’s ITA All-Americans, Hiltzik started off slow in his first set of the tournament. While he pulled out a 7-5 win over UNLV’s Ace Matias, neither he nor head coach Brad Dancer was happy with the way Hiltzik played.

“He played quite poorly in the first round there last year and was not in the right mindset,” Dancer said. “We had some words out there on the court about what he needed to. Somehow or another that got him locked into who he is and what he is and sometimes you need competition to really draw your level focus out.”

After that first set, then-No. 17 Hiltzik went on a tear to the quarterfinals. He finished off Matias 6-3 and won his next two matches 6-3, 6-2 over then-No. 26 Fred Saba of Duke and 6-2, 6-2 over then-No. 8 Ray Sarmiento of USC. Hiltzik lost to the tournament’s eventual champion in a hard-fought quarterfinal match.

Now, Hiltzik is ready to build on last year’s performance and take the court in Tulsa against some stellar competition. Hiltzik is the preseason No. 6 player in the country — the five players ranked above him will also be at the tournament.

“I made some really good mid-match adjustments last year, having Brad on court with me helped me a lot there. I fought really hard, got some matches on my belt,” Hiltzik said. “I’m just going to go out there and try to play as hard as I can.”

This will be the second tournament of the year for Tim Kopinski. After a 3-1 performance at the Olympia Fields Invite two weeks ago, Dancer says there’s room for improvement.

“He’s just got to have a little bit higher standard for himself. He’s got to establish a little better sense of self-identity out on the court,” Dancer said. “He hasn’t done a great job of that so far this fall.”

Kopinski wants to be aggressive and get more points in Tulsa. All-Americans will also mark the season debut of the No. 2 doubles team in the country, Kopinski and Guignon. Last year, Kopinski and Guignon lost their first match, but then rallied back to win the consolation bracket. With more experience playing with each other, Kopinski is hoping the pair can get off to a fast start this year.

“We’ll try to get some practice matches in before we play, and, at this point, we’re experienced enough to be able to get out there and play,” Kopisnki said.

Illinois nearly had a third player in the tournament’s main draw. Freshman Aleks Vukic made it to the final round of qualifying, losing 5-7, 6-7 to No. 62 Ralf Steinbach of Ohio State. Vukic had to go through a set of four matches in two days to get through the prequalifying bracket. He won two more matches to advance to the final round of qualifying. While he fell short of the draw, it was impressive for the Australian freshman.

Chris can be reached at [email protected]