Illinois men’s tennis looks to continue undefeated Big Ten season in Michigan


Illinois’ Aleks Vukic attempts to return the ball during the match against Ohio State at Atkins Tennis Center, on Sunday, March 29. The Illini won 4-0.

By Christopher Kennedy

The Illinois men’s tennis team handed Ohio State its first Big Ten regular season loss since 2005 last weekend. The Illini (17-3, 5-0 Big Ten) snapped the Buckeyes’ 97-dual match win streak in the Big Ten, and now hold the conference’s longest streak: 17 matches.

Illinois will have a chance to build on that this weekend as it continues through the heart of the conference slate on the road against Michigan State (11-10, 2-2 Big Ten) on Saturday and Michigan (3-12, 0-4 Big Ten) on Sunday.

The win over Ohio State was the Illini’s first sweep of the Buckeyes since 2002. It knocked OSU out of a three-way tie at the top of the Big Ten standings with Illinois and Minnesota and also helped bring home some hardware for No. 50 Aleks Vukic. The freshman was awarded Big Ten Player of the Week for his efforts against Ohio State and Penn State. He’s the third Illini and the third Big Ten freshman to win the award this spring. 

Vukic went 2-0 in singles over OSU’s No. 83 Ralf Steinbach and Penn State’s Aws Laaribi and notched two doubles victories with senior Farris Gosea. Vukic improved his spring singles record to 13-1 and hasn’t lost a match since January. 

“I think Vukic works his tail off. He’s very committed, incredibly driven,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “His passion, dedication and hard work pays off when he goes out and competes.”

Doubles play has improved since Dancer split up Ross Guignon and Tim Kopisnki in Texas. Dancer has been trying new doubles combinations all season and the current pairs have seen some success. No. 75 Jared Hiltzik and Kopinski have held down the No. 1 doubles spot and Illinois claimed wins against two of Ohio State’s ranked doubles teams on Sunday.

The team also will continue to benefit from the return of No. 64 Gosea. He was suspended for a violation of team rules during the team’s Texas trip, and his two doubles wins proved critical in last weekend’s victories over Penn State and Ohio State. 

Illinois hasn’t lost to Michigan State since 1997, and the Spartans have been inconsistent all spring. MSU hasn’t won back-to-back matches since early February. While they’ve faced some elite competition, the Spartans haven’t defeated a top-25 team the entire spring. They were shutout by Illinois opponents Duke, Texas and Ohio State. The Spartans boast the No. 17 doubles pair in the country, Harry Jadun and John Patrick Mullane. Jadun has also garnered Big Ten Men’s Tennis Athlete of the Week earlier this year.

Michigan is having a down year, coming into the weekend with a 3-12 record and riding a seven-match losing streak. The team hasn’t won a conference match and hasn’t won on the road all season. The Wolverines already have as many losses this year as they’ve had four of the past five full seasons.

While the Spartans and Wolverines don’t loom as large on the Illini’s schedule as the Buckeyes, Dancer says that the team prides itself on maintaining its focus.

“We just talked in practice about our ability to focus and not worry about tennis shots, but worry about focus,” Dancer said. “That’s the key word for our program. That’s the key for what we do: our ability to dial it in and pay attention to things.”

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