Welcome to the Illini Tennis Roundup, where intrepid writer Alex Orr summarizes how the Illini tennis teams do each weekend and gives his not-so-expert analysis. Well, if they do well enough to where he feels like writing about them. Or if they don’t do something insane like beating the No. 1 team in the nation or beating the No. 7 team in the nation without Kova. We’ll see how many times this happens.
After the polar opposite starts of the season for both Illini tennis teams, at least one win felt guaranteed, a Friday matchup for the men’s team with Penn State. One would’ve been massive but tough, a home match for the men with No. 9 Ohio State. One would’ve been even more massive and tougher, a road meeting with No. 7 Northwestern for the women.
Wins on the lower courts from Hunter Heck/Alex Brown and Zeke Clark/Alex Bancila got the weekend off to a good start for the Illini against Penn State. In singles play, Clark got the Illini their second point in a surprisingly quick 6-0, 6-1 win on court 3. Two straight set wins from Heck on court 4 and Bancila on 6 gave the Illini a speedy clinch. The teams played the rest of the matches out, where AB took a straight set loss on 1, Siphosothando Montsi took a straight set win on 2, and Kweisi Kenyatte lost in a super tiebreaker, resulting in 5-2 win for the Fighting Illini.
Next on the docket was a matinee on Sunday with the Buckeyes. A quick 6-3 win on court 3 for Aleks Kovacevic/Bancila was nullified by a fairly straightforward 6-3 loss on court 1 for Kenyatte/Montsi and a slightly closer 6-4 defeat on 2 for Heck/Brown, putting the Illini behind the 8-ball heading into singles play. Two speedy straight set defeats for AB on 2 and Heck on 5 put the Buckeyes a point away from victory, but an outstanding performance from Kova on 1 gave the Illini some life. However, Kenyatte had a few horrifically timed breaks on 6 to lose 7-5, 7-5, giving Ohio State a 4-1 win.
After two losses last weekend to lowly Iowa and Nebraska, Fighting Illini women’s tennis was looking to right the ship. Most people (me) wouldn’t expect it to happen against 7th-ranked Northwestern, but some outstanding doubles play from the Illini made those people (me) look like idiots (or an idiot, since it was just me) for a moment.
Ashley Yeah/Kate Duong cruised to a 6-3 win on court 3. Sasha Belaya/Emilee Duong started a rough day for both players by losing 6-3 on court 2. Meanwhile, Asuka Kawai/Josie Frazier stormed back from a 4-1 deficit to force a tiebreak, which they took to give the Illini a 1-0 lead. Singles play looked promising as the Illini took three first sets. The other 3 matches went the way of the Wildcats, as Emilee Duong, Belaya, and Yeah lost in straight sets on courts 2, 3, and 5 in that order, putting Northwestern a point away from victory. That point came at court 4, where Kate Duong was unable keep the momentum from a strong first set going, losing 2-6, 7-6, 6-3 and giving Northwestern the win. They played out, and Northwestern eventually won all singles matches, defeating Kawai on 1 and Frazier on 3, ultimately putting the final score at 6-1 in favor of the Wildcats.
A couple thoughts:
- Oh my goodness, Kova. I won’t say his straight set singles win over a top-12 singles player in the nation was easy, but Kova was clearly the better player. I don’t really know if there’s any mechanical changes he’s made since last year, but it’s clear that his brain is simply in a better place right now. The ITA hasn’t figured out when they’re releasing the next singles rankings, but expect Kova to be at least top-10 in the country.
- Bancila might be playing his way into the lineup. He only has one loss in singles or doubles, a tough 6-4 defeat against Baylor. With both singles matches, he won in straight sets against fairly decent opponents. He’s playing the best tennis of his collegiate career right now. I don’t know if coach Brad Dancer will substitute him in for Heck or Kenyatte in singles play when Kova’s available, but considering their struggles and Bancila’s form as of late, it’ll at least give Dancer some pause for thought.
- Let’s talk about Heck and Q for a moment though. Heck is playing like a freshman. He showed some flashes at the National Indoors, and he also showed that he could put together a full match. Q has a rough go as of late, but he is showing some fight. For instance, while down 4-5 in the second set against Ohio State, he fought off four match points to stay alive. They both need to sort some things out, definitely mentally and possibly technically. The good news is that the schedule lightens up a bit, which should give them some time to do so.
- I do want to point out that the Ohio State match was closer than the final score indicated. Siphos had a set lead and was either even or down a break in the second set on court 3, and Zeke was up a set and in a tiebreak on 4. I know I’m about to sound like Beckman, but if the Illini could’ve flipped another result, I think they could’ve had it. The eternal optimist in me will be holding onto that thought for the Big Ten tournament.
- In terms of how this affects the Big Ten as a whole, it puts Ohio State in the driver’s seat. I can’t find any sort of rules on how ties in the standings are broken in the Big Ten, but you have to think head-to-head would be high on the list. Since this was the only men’s tennis Illibuck of the year, any ties will probably go Ohio State’s way. The most likely way for the Illini to win the conference would be if Michigan sweeps both their matchups with the Bucks and if the Illini beat Michigan in their only regular season contest. However, any and all scenarios that give the Illini the title are likely out of the Illini’s control.
- Time to talk about the women’s team, and boy, that loss was a breath of fresh air. Expectations were kind of high for this team, (like, conference title high according to a certain fool), and an 0-3 start isn’t ideal, but giving a top-10 team all they can handle? That’s more like it. And yes, the Illini gave Northwestern all they could handle. Taking the doubles point and three first sets is usually a good way to find a win, but unfortunately it just fell apart. April 18 has to be circled on the team’s calendar now, since that’s when Northwestern makes the return trip to Atkins. Home court advantage could be enough to flip a few results, and if the team makes jumps like they did over the weekend over the rest of the season, watch out.
- It probably isn’t a good sign that a player that was in and out of the singles lineup last season now plays at the 2 position. I like to compare Emilee Duong to a really good Swiss watch: at their best, they can’t be beat, but if something goes a little bit wrong, like if a little bit of sand gets in the machinery or if the groundstrokes don’t quite find the range, it all falls apart. Maybe the opponents don’t quite let her find her range on court 2, and the lower courts could help her get her mojo back. The question is who you put in her place, and nobody in the lower courts has the results to justify making a switch. (This whole bullet could be about Sasha Belaya too, just without the “in and out of the lineup” part.)
- I’m thinking (hoping?) that two major questions that surround the team have a related answer: Where’s Mia Rabinowitz? And, is coach Evan Clark stacking the lineup? The first question is mystifying, and has three likely answers: she’s injured, she’s taking the season off because of covid, or she transferred. She’s still on the roster, and her social media stuff hasn’t changed so I don’t think it’s the last one, but whatever the reason, I do think she’ll be back because of how Clark has his lineup. Again, I think it’s a bit strange that Emilee is at #2 singles (and again, no slight to her, but it’s just bizarre that someone makes the jump from not in the lineup to court 2), but that’s Mia’s normal spot. He might be using Emilee as a bit of a placeholder until Mia gets back. At least, that’s my theory. If Clark has been stacking the lineup, it could be fairly reasonable and hasn’t give the Illini much of an advantage.
- Asuka’s close. The former All-American suffered an injury last season and hasn’t been quite found her form yet this season. She split her singles matches at court 2 last weekend and gave the #63 player in the nation all she could handle. That’s some quick improvement. If she gets back to even 80% of what she was pre-injury, that’d be a massive boost to this team, and she might be there already.
- Oh, poor Northwestern. They can’t afford to stream their tennis matches for free. I guess their athletic department is running out of money. Meanwhile, the University of Illinois, which is apparently swimming in cash like Scrooge McDuck, is both streaming their tennis matches for free and putting together a whiparound broadcast program. Heck, those destitute Evanstonians don’t have as robust a coronavirus testing program as Illinois. If you’re so strapped for cash, Northwestern, turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Quit trying to skim some money from opposing fans to keep the lights on.
- I’ll end on a positive note: although expectations for this team have been adjusted downward, I think they’re getting better. It’s quite a step from getting played off the court by Iowa and Nebraska to playing Northwestern nearly even. Now, I don’t expect that sort of improvement every week. I’ll be fine with baby steps. Maybe Asuka gets back to her normal self. Maybe Josie gets an actual serve. Maybe Emilee finds her range. I don’t know what this team should be this season, but I think there’s something there.