Illinois men’s tennis comes back to beat Baylor

By Christopher Kennedy

The Illinois men’s tennis team started its dual meet season with a comeback win in Waco, Texas, on Wednesday. The Illini traveled to Texas to face Baylor, the team that eliminated them from the NCAA tournament last year and shut them out twice. This time the Illini fought back to win 4-3 after facing a 1-3 deficit.

“We haven’t had a very big road win in a while for one reason or another,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “I’m proud of our guys. … These guys managed themselves well getting ready for this match.”

Freshman phenom No. 44 Aleks Vukic sealed the deal for the Illini with a hard-fought match against Baylor’s Mate Zsiga. Vukic won 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) in his first team match with Illinois. The third set was back-and-forth until Vukic finally claimed the victory in the lengthy tiebreaker on a double-fault by Zsiga.

“It was a battle and somehow (I) got the win,” Vukic said. “(It) always felt like I was on top of the guy. … it was a tough match.”

It was a difficult road for Vukic to even have the chance to secure the win. The Illini lost the lone doubles point and No. 5 Julian Lenz of Baylor defeated Farris Gosea to put the Illini in an early 0-2 hole. 

A win by Ross Guignon over No. 121 Felipe Rios put the Illini on the board. The Bears’ Diego Galeano defeated No. 62 Aron Hiltzik 6-3, 7-5 to put Baylor up 3-1, but that would be the Bears’ final win of Wednesday’s match. No. 31 Jared Hiltzik came back in the second set to take down No. 26 Tony Lupieri. No. 40 Tim Kopinski held off Max Tchoutakian to tie the meet and give Vukic a chance to clinch the victory on the No. 5 singles court.    

Kopinski and Vukic played simultaneously in the final two matches to finish, knowing that if one of them lost, the meet would end in a loss. Kopinski fought off Tchoutakian 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 to keep the Illini alive. Kopinski opened things up with a 12-point win streak in the final set to go up 4-2. His win brought the Illini to a 3-3 tie with the Bears.

It was only the first dual meet of a long spring season, but it was a significant victory for the Illini. Baylor was the only team to shut out Illinois last year, and the Bears did so twice. The second time sent the Illini home from the NCAA tournament.  

Dancer said before the meet the Illini were going to Baylor to win, and that’s exactly what they did. He wanted to see how the team responded to an early season challenge. It responded with an emphatic comeback victory.

“All of our guys kept their composure,” Dancer said. “That’s the No. 1 thing you’ve got to do on the tennis court.”

Christopher can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter