Illinois men’s tennis look to build streak at home this weekend

By Christopher Kennedy

A week after hosting the ITA Indoor National Championships in Chicago, the Illinois men’s tennis team is ready to get back to the grind of the schedule. 

After defeating Big Ten rival No. 8 Ohio State on Sunday, the Illini will play three matches at home this weekend. The Illini will take on in-state foe No. 26 Northwestern on Friday night and then face Toledo and conference opponent No. 44 Indiana in a Sunday doubleheader. Head coach Brad Dancer said it’s a tough transition going from a national championship tournament back to the regular season slate.

“When you play matches to clinch, there’s a different feel to it. When you lose, you’re done with that tournament,” Dancer said. “That’s certainly a different sensation than your regular dual match. Whether we win or lose on Friday we play (those teams) on Sunday.”

The Illini’s victory over Ohio State was their third win against the Buckeyes since 2007, and their first since 2012. They’ve had more success against their two Big Ten opponents this weekend. Illinois hasn’t lost to Northwestern since 1997. The Wildcats come to Urbana riding a four-match win streak, including a victory over No. 25 Harvard, but they haven’t played since Feb. 10. Northwestern freshman Logan Staggs is the only freshman to take home Big Ten Tennis Athlete of the Week honors this year, and he has been integral to its win streak. Staggs has played in the No. 3 spot for Northwestern, just behind two more talented young players — No. 64 Sam Shropshire and No. 96 Strong Kirchheimer.

Toledo provides a respite from Big Ten play Sunday afternoon. Dancer said that different players could rotate in and see some time against the Rockets. Last Friday, Toledo was shut out 7-0 by Wisconsin-Green Bay, a team that the Illini dominated earlier this season. The Rockets have played two other Big Ten teams this season — No. 60 Michigan State and Ohio State — and were shut out in both matches.

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Recently, Illinois hasn’t dominated Indiana like it has Northwestern. The Illini are 3-2 against the Hoosiers in the last four seasons, and the all-time record is knotted at 44-44. Last year, the Illini shellacked the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Indiana, 7-0, dropping only two sets. But Indiana is better this year and should be more of a challenge for Illinois. The Hoosiers are 6-1 and on a four-match winning streak. Even with conference foes, Dancer said that the team’s preparation is still the same.  

“Not only do we see them during the year, but we see them a little bit more in fall tournaments … there’s some more familiarity,” Dancer said. “It affects the conference standings and so forth, but outside of that (there’s nothing different).”

This weekend also marks the last home matches for the Illini for more than a month. They’ll travel to Notre Dame and around Texas and won’t return home until March 27. The Illini had a 17-match home win streak snapped earlier this year. Now, they’ve started a new one, currently at two matches.

“We just have to use our home crowd the best we can,” Dancer said. “For us, we love playing in front of our home crowd. Just have to be ready to go.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @ChrisKennedy_4.