Twin peaks: Kopinskis leave behind a mountain of achievements

By Christopher Kennedy

“Not again.”

That’s what went through Tim Kopinski’s head when his twin sister Melissa decided to join him to play tennis at Illinois.

Through junior tennis and high school, Tim had always been “Melissa’s brother” — constantly overshadowed by his sister. Tim would come home beaming with a third-place tournament trophy, and Melissa would walk in with a first place one. Melissa had scholarship offers from top schools across the country, but Illinois was one of a few schools interested in Tim.

“She was one of the top (junior tennis players) in the country, I’d have to hear about all her success, and I’m out here struggling to get into the tournaments,” Tim said, “That definitely motivated me … seeing all her success and I’m losing first round. It kind of motivated me to train more.”

But they both decided to become Illini, and in 2011, they became the first pair of twins to play on the Illinois men’s and women’s tennis teams. Four years later, they’re the first pair of twins to have All-American banners hanging on the wall at the Atkins Tennis Center. The Kopinskis have left their mark on Illinois tennis.

And Tim has become more than just “Melissa’s brother.”

During junior tennis, Melissa said she remembers Tim losing a lot. He was a lot smaller than many of his opponents. During one of the many times that Tim was beaten, she remembers that men’s tennis head coach Brad Dancer was there. He told Melissa, “You have a special brother out there.”

“With him, I couldn’t have been more right,” Dancer said. “I watched him play a match one time when he was down 6-1, 5-0, 40-0, and he was jumping around like it was the first point of the match … Once the match is on, he’s on … You cannot turn Tim Kopinski off.”

Dancer called the twins “two of the most respectful, humble, athletic kids,” he has ever met. When they arrived at Illinois they immediately became two of their team’s hardest working players.

Melissa said Tim has gone from being a “tiny kid” to being able to “squat a car.” He’s won the Illini’s Strength and Conditioning Award the last three years. Dancer said that future Illinois teams will look back to Tim as a standard of hard work.

That work ethic has led to illustrious careers and a litany of achievements for the twins. Tim earned his All-American honor with doubles partner Ross Guignon after they received a top-eight seed in the 2014 NCAA Doubles Tournament. The pair was eliminated in the first round.

Melissa gained her All-American status in 2013 with Tim watching while Illinois hosted the NCAA Championships. She reached the round of 16 in the doubles tournament along with her partner Rachael White.

The twins have also collected a staggering number of victories in their college careers. Together, they’ve put up a combined 369 wins for Illinois with a chance to add more in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Tim has claimed 107 singles matches and 101 doubles matches, while Melissa has won 74 singles matches and 87 doubles matches.

This year, Tim has been one of the men’s teams top players — he’s 18-3 this spring. Melissa is 15-7 as the top player on the women’s team and won the team’s MVP award with teammate Alexis Casati. She also won the award her freshmen year, and four years later, women’s head coach Michelle Dasso said that Melissa has developed into an outspoken, feisty leader.

Melissa has been there for several of Tim’s biggest moments as an Illini. Just this school year, she watched her brother win his second Big Ten championship and his first professional title at Champaign’s JSM Challenger in November. But one of her favorite matches of Tim’s came during their sophomore year in 2013.

While Melissa was putting together an outstanding freshman year, one of Tim’s first big moments came against Kentucky. He won the clinching match in a 4-3 upset over the then-No. 7 Wildcats. Atkins was electric and Tim was swarmed by teammates and fans on the court.

Since they got to college, Tim said the twins’ playing styles have changed and become more similar.

“We both like to be really aggressive on court … We use our forehands and impose our game on our opponents instead of counterattacking,” Tim said. “We use our physicality to make it not as much fun for our opponents.”

While they aren’t usually able to watch each other play because the men’s and women’s teams alternate home weekends, Melissa says they see each other every day at practice.

Tim offers Melissa advice for life on the court, beyond just her game. He talks to Melissa about staying on top of her nutrition and fitness. Melissa offers advice to Tim for life off the court. She tells him that there is life outside of tennis and reminds him to balance sports and everything else.

While Tim might have had some uncertainty about Melissa joining him in Champaign, he said he’s happy to have had his sister here the last four years.

“People keep asking, can I imagine a different school without him, and honestly I can’t,” Melissa said. “I wouldn’t take this away for anything.”

[email protected]