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Or, the best Illini Athletics performance of 2020.


The 2019-2020 Illini men’s tennis season didn’t go as planned. A season-opening loss at home to Ole Miss set the tone that was sustained for most of the season, particularly at a doubleheader in North Carolina against UNC and Duke where the Illini got swept. A win against a ranked Baylor squad could’ve slightly salvaged a horrible nonconference slate, but alas, a disappointing 4-3 loss crushed that idea.

This had to be killing Zeke Clark, the heart and soul for Illinois Tennis for a few years running. To be fair, the losses weren’t really his fault. Coming into this past year, it looked like the Illini would be solid in the top four singles spots which would be enough to give the Illini wins in most matches. Unfortunately, Aleks Kovacevic started off poorly and from then on was stuck behind a mental wall. Then, all the question marks in doubles and 5 and 6 singles became wildly important.

The look ahead to Big Ten play didn’t look too rosy after the Baylor matchup because one of the three remaining answers would turn into a question. After forcing a third set in and taking control of his match at 4 singles, Zeke started limping (I think it was his hamstring, but I’m not entirely sure). As a player who relies on his quickness more than most players, this pretty much did him in that match. A quick third set clinched the overall match for the Bears. If this would be a long-term injury, the Illini were in for a very rough time.

So, to kick off conference play, an unranked Illini traveled up north on Unofficial weekend to take on a ranked and surging Northwestern squad.

It looked rather bleak.

I have a few theories as to why I like college tennis.

The first is that I was fairly decent at it in high school. Well, I need to caveat that a ton. My high school didn’t have a team, so this is in comparison to my friends then. I’m from a small town, so I grew up playing basketball and baseball and running track and whatnot against these guys for my whole life. Tennis was the first thing athletically I could beat them in regularly (not to brag, but academically is a completely different story). Anyway, I’m not sure if it’s been scientifically proven, but I’m pretty sure if you’re (relatively) good at a sport, you’re more likely to watch it.

The second is that it takes one of my favorite things about sports (crunching some information in your mind to figure out a team’s approximate chance of winning) and then putting that into hyperdrive by putting six matches side-by-side. You know that thing in, say, March Madness or a Saturday in fall where there’s a bunch of games going on at once and you’re trying to figure out which one is closest so you can watch that one? Imagine that, but without having to change the channel and where the result of one match has a bit of an effect on all the others. It’s absolutely amazing.

The third and probably biggest reason I like watching tennis is that particularly with singles matches, there’s nowhere to hide. Skill and athleticism will only take you so far. If your mental acumen isn’t up to snuff, you will break down. In the past two years, I can count multiple Illini men’s tennis players whose minds just melted. I mentioned Kova before (if anyone wants to argue, I saw him chuck his racquet against the wall to give his opponent match point). He was just copying Keenan Mayo, who did the same the year before. Anyway, in singles tennis, there is nobody else to pick you up if you’re slipping. There’s nobody else on the court except someone who wants you to lose.

By all appearances, you are alone.

The match got underway well for once for the Illini. AB and Kova had a return to form at 1 doubles. Over at 3 doubles, Gui Gomes played out of his mind. No offense to his partner that day Siph Montsi, but there were moments where Gui acted like it was a singles match and still managed to take a point. Anyway, two doubles wins means the doubles point, so for the first time in an important match in recent memory, the Illini put their opponent behind the eight ball.

Zeke played at 2 doubles for the Illini with a massive wrap on his injured leg. It stayed on when he moved over a couple courts to take on Chris Ephron at 3 singles, but it didn’t affect him. For the first set, neither player gave an inch. A suspicious line call from Ephron on a deuce kept him even, and clearly, Zeke was upset about it (as someone who sat down the line in question, Zeke had very good case). This didn’t affect momentum all that much, but now the players made it a point to, shall we say, emphasize points.

The set fittingly went to a tiebreak, where Zeke pulled off the win. One down, one to go.

I quite liked the early part of quarantine, the back half of March and into April. I definitely need to explain myself, and I think there are two components that go hand-in-hand to create some reasons.

I should also preface this by acknowledging that I’m immensely lucky. Best we can tell, my family dodged the virus, and if we didn’t, we were asymptomatic. I hope our luck continues, but I know there are many people out there where it hasn’t or it won’t. It’d be incredibly arrogant for me to say what I’m about to say without recognizing that it’s impossible for many people to be even remotely optimistic about the past eight months. I’m just letting you know what my point of view is going into this was, and also that I know that my point of view is incredibly narrow.

The first component is the sort of camaraderie that came from a large number of people doing the same thing, or rather doing the same nothing (again, I recognize that there are people who couldn’t or chose not to, and I would like you to know that I very much love and hate these people respectively). You’re stuck at home, maybe do some work, maybe take up a hobby, maybe nothing, only venture out for food or other important errands and maybe a walk. You’re on an Illinois blog, so you know the versatile use of the phrase “not ideal.” Quarantine life is “not ideal.”

The second is that I have lots of experience with this “not ideal” lifestyle. It’s practically equivalent to my experience with bipolar disorder, the thing that has surfaced during and is the main driver of my frustratingly long time in college.

Here’s how I know this is true: every little fad that’s popped up is something I picked up during a high to distract me from my lows in the few years between my bipolar diagnosis and the pandemic. Bread making? I bought a breadmaker from the ReStore (a fascinating place you should go to when you get the chance) and brought fresh homemade loaves to Illini Soccer tailgates. (Security at Demirjian only gives you a funny look when you carry a 12-inch bread knife through the gates.) Learning an instrument? I also bought a guitar from the ReStore, fixed it up and taught myself some chords. You only need three to sing most of John Prine’s songs, so I’m set. Weird late-night sports? One night during a low spell, I somehow got my eyes on an Aussie Rules game, and now I am an ardent supporter of the Collingwood Magpies. I still have a somewhat basic knowledge of footy, but I think Isaac Quaynor is going to be an excellent Pie. Online Classes? In February, I got an all-online class schedule to provide some flexibility in case my bipolar disorder caused some issues.

That may be a bit specific. The general themes of quarantine and my experience with bipolar disorder match up pretty well. Time becoming a mere suggestion. Avoiding people and staying inside. Trying to figure out something constructive to do so you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time. Bingeing a show to waste your time anyway. It’s all the same.

I suppose the reason I liked it early on is a bunch of people got a taste of my bipolar disorder without the frustrating absence of a reason it’s happening. Seeing people struggle with it or deal with it in the same way made me feel a little more secure in my trials and tribulations.

I don’t mean that in a mean-spirited, schadenfreude way. The analogy I’d use is if you flunked an exam, had a mild panic attack, and then found out everyone else failed too. Like, you aren’t happy that everyone flunked, but you’re comforted by the evidence that the test was probably hard.

It’s a deeply selfish way to look, but it’s one of the few silver linings I can find in this dark cloud, so I’m going to take it and run. For a moment, when everyone was figuring out how to be alone together, I retroactively felt a bit less lonely.

If the first set was any indication that Zeke’s leg was working fine, him taking off the yards of wrap on his leg before the second was even stronger evidence. The second set started off as evenly as the first, but then things started going awry for Zeke. A rash of errors cropped up from his forehand, which is strange for such a disciplined player as himself. The power in his forehand and serve evaporated soon after. This was enough to tip the scales in Ephron’s direction, who took the second set 6-3.

Let’s talk Zeke’s style of play. I mentioned that he’s the heart and soul of this team, and I don’t use that term lightly. He doesn’t have the most imposing stature, so he can’t hit many baseline winners. What he can do is get to every single ball until his opponent makes a mistake. Each point seems like it’s life and death for Zeke, and he’s in incredible shape, so he’ll do this for a full three sets.

This is a long way of saying his matches take forever and a day. When he and Ephron finished their second set, every other singles match had finished with most going 3 sets. Fletcher Scott dominated in 2 sets at court 5, AB beat his style-doppelganger in 3 on court 1, Kova found his backhand in the second set but lost the bookends at court 2, Siph Montsi came close but never broke his opponent and lost the two sets in tiebreaks on court 4, and down on court 6, Vuk Budic lost a rollercoaster 3-set match. Add in the Illini’s victory in doubles, and the score was 3-3 heading into Zeke’s third set. An Illini win relies solely on a guy with a faulty arm and leg.

But wait, it gets worse! Zeke’s legs started seizing up. If I had to guess, it might be that the painkillers he was using to deal with his original leg injury started showing some side effects. Whatever the cause, he was having issues walking around between points. Again, it looked bleak.

By experience (I’m a teetotaler at the University of Illinois who left town on Unofficial, what did you expect) I have learned three things about loneliness. I’m sure there are more out there, but if I never learn another thing about loneliness, these three will suffice.

  1. Loneliness is extremely powerful, and not in a good way. It can cause an incredibly dangerous feedback loop with depression that goes lonely -> sad -> stay away from people -> lonely. Once you’re feeling lonely and depressed, it’s tough to break yourself out of a cycle.
  2. Loneliness around people is the absolute worst. Once you’re convinced that you’re lonely, you have two lines of reasoning for it. One is that it’s the luck of the draw and you’re just in the wrong environment. The other is that there’s something intrinsically wrong with yourself as a person. If you’re, say, living in a cabin deep in the wilderness, being lonely because of your environment of few if any people makes pretty good sense. It’s tougher to say that if you’re around other people.
  3. Loneliness is a façade. The people who care may not be right there in person, but they are there for you, I promise. Just look. If you still can’t find them, look harder.

As an introvert, I don’t know how well these things translate to extroverts right now. I’m not a person that likes being around other people much, so I don’t know the full extent of what missing that is like.

I will let you in on a secret though: I miss so much. Don’t get me wrong, I love annoying my family to high heavens. I love hiking around the hills of southern Illinois. I don’t think I’d be doing it as much without the pandemic.

But my goodness, I miss so much, particularly in Chambana. I miss seeing the leaves change in fall, particularly all the maples around southeast Urbana. I miss walking all the way across campus to football games just to see the amount of orange increase the further I go. I miss marching down First Street after a game with students looking to get hammered at Kam’s, only to turn left at the last moment and get some wonderfully disgusting pizza from Vinny’s. I miss running at 2 in the morning, dodging drunk people on Green Street as I lope along. I miss seeing the first appreciable snowfall, grabbing my sled and a few Skis, heading to the Arboretum because I’m secretly a 6-year-old at heart, and then getting Merry Ann’s at stupid o’clock afterward. I miss spending a full afternoon getting lost in Jane Adams Bookstore. I miss playing trivia with my team on Tuesday nights. I miss perching in Funk Library, the best library on campus, to do homework while watching students buzz around the south quad from above. I miss getting my haircut in Urbana and getting the neck shave/hot towel treatment afterward (Wicked Rascal, can’t recommend highly enough). I miss meandering around Lincoln Square Mall, absolutely befuddled by the collection of shops. I miss being befuddled by just Dallas and Co.

There’s a bunch of stuff I’ll never be able to do again, either because stuff closed or because I was recently diagnosed with Celiac Disease. It sucks, and while I know I’m lucky, I don’t think that prevents me from being sad about all the stuff I would’ve done but couldn’t.

The thing that surprises me is that I miss people, and in particular, crowds, and even more in particular, crowds at Illini games. The old cranky people who have strong opinions on the Chief. The diehard non-revenue sports fans. Orange Krush measuring how mad Fran is. The parents calling their kids by loving nicknames. I love them all (not equally, it probably goes 4, 1, 2t, 2t respectively).

I have a general idea what that first Illini crowd is going to be like, after we’re all alone, backs against the wall, after we find a way to deal with it, after we find our people from afar, after they find a way to help us by bringing us the ball between points or slipping us magic beans to help with our cramping legs, after we take a medical break, conceding a point to our opponent, but still managing to force a deuce on his serve, after we break our opponent’s serve…twice, after we’re serving for the match and moments after we hit a forehand winner to clinch an improbable win…