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Making Sense of Illini Men’s Tennis’ Win over No. 1 USC

Brad Dancer’s squad started off the 2021 season with quite the bang.

@IlliniMTennis

There’s a ton to say about this match, so it’s probably best to start with a recap:

Illinois’ doubles lineup had Aleks Kovacevic/Alex Bancila on court 3, Alex Brown/Hunter Heck on court 2, and Kweisi Kenyatte/Siphosothando Montsi on court 1. USC went with Ryder Jackson/Lodewijk Westtrate on 3, Stefan Dostanic/Bradley Frye on 2, and Daniel Cuikerman/Riley Smith on 1, the top ranked doubles duo in the nation.

Heck/Brown played Dostanic/Frye fairly evenly, but a few bad breaks here and a couple of mistakes there gave the USC team a 6-3 win. Kova/Bancila got a break over Jackson/Westtrate about midway through the set and held serve to win 6-4. Meanwhile, Kenyatte/Montsi and Cuikerman/Smith held serve all the way to 5-5, where the Illini got a break, took the set, and claimed the doubles point.

We’ll run through the singles matches in the order they finished. Kenyatte has a 130 mph serve, which makes him very OP for court 6. He dominated with his serve, got a few breaks along the way, and took a straight-set win 6-4, 6-2 over Frye.

Siphs finished next on court 3. After spotting Dostanic an early break, Siphs roared back with 2 of his own to take the first set 6-4. He then took that momentum into the second set to win 6-3 over the #104 singles player in the nation. Illinois led 3-0, one point away from clinching.

The next to finish was Heck on court 5. A poor first set gave Westtrate a 6-2 win. Double H (I know just enough about rasslin to come up with the nickname, but not enough to make jokes beyond that) grew into the second set. He quickly matched and surpassed his win total from the first set. A run from Westtrate put Heck under a ton of pressure, but the freshman fought back, breaking Westtrate’s serve multiple times to force a tiebreak. After taking the first 4 points in the tiebreak, Westtrate took the next 7 to take the set, match, and point for USC 6-2, 7-6 (4).

The last court to finish their match (spoiler alert) was court 4, where Zeke Clark took on #79 Jackson. It was as much of a rollercoaster as a straight set match can be, and if I sincerely apologize if I forgot some of the twists, turns, or loop-de-loops. Zeke broke Jackson’s serve a couple of times in the first set to take an early lead, but Jackson broke him back a couple of times until it was knotted up at 5. Zeke held serve and broke Jackson’s to take the first set 7-5. I don’t remember what happened at the beginning of the second set. I just know that Zeke was up 5-4 and serving for the match. Jackson then broke his serve to stay alive, then Zeke broke Jackson’s serve to go up 6-5. He then held serve to win the set 7-5, take the match 2 sets to none, and clinch the win for Illinois 4-1.

A bunch of disjointed thoughts:

  • I think Kova’s back? He went up against the #1 singles player in the nation and took the first set 6-4. He had a rough second set, losing 6-2, but what gives me hope is that he came back in the third after going down a break. It was tied 3-3 when Zeke clinched, and with the momentum on his side, I think he could’ve won it. It looks like a return to his 18/19 form, which if it is, I have no idea exactly where the ceiling on this team is. I just know it’s way up there.
  • Shoutout AB as well. He lost the first set after getting broken late in it. He fought hard in a gutsy second set, and then won an even gutsier tiebreak 8-6 to force a third set, which was abandoned tied at 2 games apiece. He lost in straight sets in the Wisconsin exhibition, so that has to be a confidence booster.
  • Kweisi Kenyatte is a cheat code at 6 singles. I don’t know where you put someone with a 130 mph serve, but it shouldn’t be court 6. The problem is, I don’t know if you can put him over anyone else. Maybe switch places with Heck? The top 4 singles courts are pretty much locked in.
  • Speaking of which, he and Siphs make an outstanding doubles team. Here’s generally how it works: Siphs is a decent server, but the receiver has to decide between going at a 6-8 athletic guy at the net or hit groundstrokes with Siphs, so that’s an advantage to the Illini. Kweisi has an incredible serve, so that’s an advantage to the Illini. Then, Siphs is a darn good returner (not saying Kweisi can’t, but that’s Montsi’s bread and butter), so that’s a relative advantage to the Illini. That’s at least 75% of the doubles game that you’d feel reasonably good about the Illini have an above average chance. Because of the size difference (Kweisi is 6-8, Siphs is 5-6), I affectionately call them the Circus Act, and chances are, the Circus Act is going to be ranked pretty highly very soon.
  • Some slapdash and self-promotion: Don’t worry about Hunter Heck; he’s a freshman and he’ll get comfortable. Of course Zeke clinched it for the Illini. Of course. I think Siphs has gotten stronger from last year to this year. His groundstrokes have a bit more venom to them.
  • I think it might be a good thing that fans weren’t allowed in the building. Yeah, the atmosphere would’ve been incredibly electric, but I think a pro-Illini crowd would’ve done some structural damage to Atkins last night.
  • I’ll leave you with a snippet from the season preview I procrastinated on writing and thus never put up for public consumption:

The Illini are hosting the ITA National Team Indoor Championships at Atkins this weekend. It’s an 8-team tournament, all of which are supposed to be among the top teams in the nation. That’s not exactly where we expect the Illini to be this year, so getting swept is probably the expectation. Winning any match will raise some eyebrows.

Well, consider my eyebrows raised. I have no idea what my expectations for this team should be now (they’ll probably be sorted by the end of this weekend). The NCAA tournament is waaay too far away to look forward to, so let’s just look at the B1G regular season. In that ill-fated season preview, I picked the Illini to finish 3rd behind Michigan and Ohio State, the clear class of the conference. They are ranked #13 and #8 respectively, and USC, a team the Illini beat comfortably, is ranked #1. Illinois plays each of Michigan and Ohio State just once. Both matchups are at Atkins. I’m feeling a bit more confident in the Illini’s chances in them after yesterday. Not quite enough to guarantee a conference title, but just enough to think it’s a genuine possibility.