Illini men’s tennis returns home to defend perfect conference record

Illinois’ Aron Hiltzik attempts a return during the tennis game vs. Ohio State at Atkins Tennis Center on March 29. Illinois looks to continue flawless play this weekend.

By Christopher Kennedy

The Illinois men’s tennis team remains perfect in conference play after two wins in Michigan, and returns home to face Iowa on Saturday and Nebraska on Sunday.

The No. 3-ranked Illini (19-3, 7-0 Big Ten) are entering the weekend on a four-match winning streak. They haven’t lost a home match since January, when they were defeated by 4-3 by then-No. 11 Duke. If the winning streak continues, the team has a chance to put together its first undefeated Big Ten regular season since 2005.

Illinois took sole possession of first place in the conference last weekend after being tied at the top with Minnesota. The Golden Gophers split their two road matches, falling to Ohio State and defeating Penn State. The Illini topped two struggling teams from Michigan on the road, beating the inconsistent Spartans 6-1 and the shaky Wolverines 4-0.

While this weekend’s opponents are faring better in the Big Ten standings, the Illini’s recipe for success should be the same. Last weekend was another display of improved doubles play and a show of the team’s depth.

The Illini have won five of seven doubles points (and four of four in the Big Ten) since splitting up top pair seniors Ross Guignon and Tim Kopinski. Head coach Brad Dancer said he likes the play of Guignon with freshman Aron Hiltzik, and the pair is 2-1 in matches they’ve completed. Dancer said Guignon was the spark for the team in doubles against Michigan.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    “I think our doubles chemistry has been good. (Ross) set the tone for the whole match with his doubles play,” Dancer said. “He was awesome.”

    While Guignon has been integral to the doubles lineup, he also saw his first singles action in more than a month against Michigan State. He fell to the Spartans’ Harry Jadun 6-4, 4-6, 0-1 (9-11).

    Fellow senior Blake Bazarnik also returned to the lineup last weekend in both singles and doubles for the first time since mid-March. Bazarnik had a successful outing, defeating Michael Dube of MSU and Tyler Gardiner of Michigan. He also picked up a doubles win against MSU with partner junior Jared Hiltzik. Bazarnik said he’s taking things slowly.

    “Pretty much take it one day at a time,” Bazarnik said. “Working hard, working on different things in practice.”

    Iowa and Nebraska are tied for fifth in the Big Ten with Indiana at 3-3. While neither Michigan State nor Michigan have any ranked singles players, the Hawkeyes bring one in No. 112 Matt Hagan.

    Hagan has already made the trip to Urbana earlier this year: he competed in the singles draw at the JSM Challenger of Urbana-Champaign in November. Hagan defeated the Illini’s Brian Page in the first round. Iowa also sports a ranked doubles pair in No. 84 Hagan and Dominic Patrick.

    The Huskers are coming off a weekend split in Indiana, losing to the Hoosiers 6-1 and beating Purdue 4-3. They already have as many wins as last year in the conference with three. Nebraska has never finished with a record better than 3-9 in the Big Ten or better than ninth in the 12-team tennis conference.While it’ll be a tall order to beat Illinois this weekend, finishing the season in the middle-of-the-pack of the Big Ten would be a step up for the Huskers.

    It’s the last home weekend for Illinois before hosting the Big Ten Tournament April 23 through 26.

    [email protected]