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Is 2003 Men’s Tennis the greatest team in Illinois history?

Fifteen years ago, Craig Tiley's loaded roster brings home the hardware in a perfect season.

The case could be made that this is the greatest team in Illinois athletics history.

It boasts one of the few National Champions in school history in Amer Delic, who won the singles ITA crown and was named a two-time All-American. It's also the only team to go a perfect 32-0, part of an NCAA record 64-match win streak that ended the next year in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

Of course, it all starts with the hiring of the coach of the team, Craig Tiley.

Back in 1992, Illinois tennis was at the bottom of the barrel. Perennial last place finishers, the team hadn't had a winning season in 15 years. There were only a handful of teams who annually competed for the NCAA Championship, and Illinois surely wasn't one of them. But there was an opportunity to be had to break a new team into the ranks and rise from the ranks of the forlorn. Craig Tiley saw that in Illinois, and sold his vision to the AD at the time, Ron Guenther. Guenther takes some heat for his hiring ability, but to me he had more success than failure, and Tiley is a perfect example.

He saw what few others could: Illinois can be great if the right person took over. When current head coach Neil Adams left, Tiley was given the full time position on an interim basis, then given complete autonomy the following year in 1994.

And so it began, but not without its hiccups. It took a few years to recruit the right players and to build the program from scratch, but by 1997, Tiley had turned a once-downtrodden tennis team into a Big Ten Champion and a competitor on the national stage. However, it took a few years to get to the ultimate goal: a National Championship.

Which brings us to 2003. His initial dream laid out before Guenther was to win a National Championship in 10 years. Well, that year started off well enough. A couple of wins over non-conference foes such as Ball State, Notre Dame, Florida, and Duke paved the way for Illinois to dominate in Big Ten play. And dominate they did, demolishing all who crossed their paths, including vaunted Ohio State twice on their quest to the Nationals in Athens, Georgia.

It was not an easy road by any means, but with perseverance and determination, this team led by Delic and Rajeev Ram made it to the final round against a tough Vanderbilt squad. It was a knockdown, dragout affair, with the score eventually all even at 3-3. The hero turned out to be a little-known sophomore named Chris Martin.

Martin had had difficulty even breaking into the singles lineup all season. On this day, however, he proved he belonged as he took the match-winning point in a dramatic 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory that fulfilled Tiley's promise and brought Illinois to a glory once unheard of.

It's one of the greatest triumphs in Illinois and a reason why Craig Tiley's name is uttered in the discussion of greatest Illini coaches.