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Illini Men’s Tennis is for real this season

Without top player Aleks Kovacevic, this might be more impressive than the win over No. 1 USC.

@IlliniMTennis

Again, starting with a recap:

No. 7 Virginia ran Illinois off the courts on the doubles matches yada yada yada who cares 1-0 Hoos.

With Kovacevic off to Florida for an ITF event, every singles player moved up a court. After a rough singles match with Baylor, moving up to court 5 was not what the doctor ordered for Kweisi Kenyatte. He was unable to stop that bad momentum, and his strong first serve was not enough as Chris Rodesh took it 7-5, 6-3. 2-0 Cavaliers.

After a mediocre freshman year and new to the singles lineup for this season, expectations weren’t exactly high for Alex Bancila. He exceeded any and all expectations anyone may have had, beating Gianni Ross 7-6 (5), 6-1 on court 6 and halving the Virginia lead to 2-1.

The next finish was at court 1, where you could make the case Alex Brown had a shot. He is an All-American and ranked #15 in the nation after all. But accolades only count for so much, and Carl Soderlund’s game was stellar in the bookend sets. A 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 loss for AB put the Illini on the brink. 3-1 Hoos.

We retroactively turn our attention to court 4, where freshman Hunter Heck was looking to right the ship. He showed some flashes in his first two singles matches of his career, but they were only flashes as he lost both pretty convincingly. This wasn’t the case this time, as HH put together a full match, beating Ryan Goetz 7-5, 7-6 (5). 3-2 Hoos.

Up next is court 2, where I don’t know how to describe what Siphosothando Monti pulled off. I’m just going to state the score and wax poetic about it down below. He beat Inaki Montes de la Torre 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, and the overall score was now 3-3.

Of course, the deciding match was Zeke Clark’s at court 3, because who else would it be? In a match definitely played to his style (more on this later), Zeke prevailed, because of course he did. A 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-3 win gave the Illini an improbable, come-from-behind 4-3 win.

A few thoughts:

  • There are many stories you can make about this one, but the main one is Siphs Montsi. Montes was playing stellar tennis all weekend, as was the case in the first set. Siphs fought back, because that’s what Siphs does. The third set was the thing of legends. It opened evenly, each player punching and counterpunching their way to a 3-3 tie. At the changeover, things took a turn. Montes received treatment for his left knee, which got taped up and seemed alright. Siphs, meanwhile, had attention paid to his back, which is horrible news for a tennis player. It was obvious on the court, him wincing during points and barely moving between points. Like, “use Noe Khlif as a personal ballboy” barely moving.

After each player held serve to get to 4-4, the injuries took effect. Montes finally broke Montsi’s serve and was then serving up 5-4.

But Siphs fought back. He grinded his way to a break, then grinded his way to a service hold, then grinded his way to another break to win it. I…I don’t know how. I saw it (on a screen) with my own eyes. I just don’t believe them.

In his post-match interview, he started by saying “I’m just so tired” and then said his mantra is “legs of a gazelle, heart of a lion, mind of a tiger.” He certainly lived up to that today.

  • I guess I should talk about Zeke next? He did his thing of course (important stat: he full-on dove after 3 balls in his match), but I kept making the mistake of calculating who was on top by who broke serve the most. Since Zeke is a plus returner and a not-so-great server, that’s not a great metric to use. Zeke Clark matches: where the serves are made up and the breaks don’t matter.
  • It was the youth that truly carried this team today. Bancila is a redshirt freshman, and HH is a true freshman. It really says something about them mentally that these two are coming back from setbacks.

Bancila’s first freshman year was exceptionally mediocre. A 10-13 record down on the lower courts and dropping out of the singles lineup would put some doubt into anyone’s mind, but when given even the slightest opportunity, he took it, putting together the Illini’s most dominant performance of the day.

Hunter Heck’s disappointment is a bit more recent. Losing your first 2 singles matches in college might put you in a spiral like Kova was on last year, but not Hunter Heck. In a dogfight of a match, he hunkered down and ripped off 5 straight points in the tiebreak to take a crucial straight-set victory. The future looks very bright for the kid from Brighton, Minnesota.

  • Let’s talk about Kova. Yes, it looks bad that he’s skipping out on a dual match for a singles event. From a certain perspective, he could look selfish or like a bad teammate. HOWEVER, an ITF Futures event is an incredible opportunity. Also, he’s a bit of a luxury to this Illini team. He shouldn’t be here, and whatever they get from him is basically a bonus.

I think if the Illini were in the championship, he would’ve played, but that’s an if that didn’t happen. Fortunately, we also aren’t asking if he would’ve flipped a loss to a win.

  • I’d like to thank the women’s tennis team for kindly donating their powers again to the men’s team yesterday. The less said about their weekend the better, so I won’t say/type anything else about it.
  • Once again, it’s time to daydream about Atkins being packed for this one. Doubles play would’ve gotten some incredible eye rolls and sighs from the Illini faithful. At the other end of the spectrum, I think the balcony railing would’ve given way when Siphs pulled off his magic. So once again, it might be a good thing that fans aren’t allowed.
  • I don’t know where this team will be ranked. Here’s the current consensus about the rankings: After going 0-3, USC is going to drop a lot. UNC is going to be ranked #1. After that, who knows?

With USC going 0-3 on the weekend, that Friday upset for the Illini means a lot less. Like, I think it would’ve gotten them ranked, but after beating a full-strength #7 Virginia team without Kova, the question is not if the Illini will be ranked. It’s how high.