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. The current count is at 2.
The first match of the weekend was for the women at Michigan. Even if the rankings don’t show it, the Wolverines are the class of the Big Ten, and they once again proved it against the Illini. Losses for Josie Frazier/Asuka Kawaii (7-5) on court 1 and Kate Duong/Ashley Yeah (6-4) on 3 gave Michigan the doubles point. It got worse as 3 straight set wins in singles play for the Wolverines gave them the quick win. Kate Duong (6-1, 6-2) lost first on court 2, followed shortly by Yeah (6-4, 6-3) on 5 and Sasha Belaya on 4 (6-3, 6-1).
The Friday nightcap went better for the Illini. The men’s team, currently ranked #9 in the country, welcomed Iowa, who entered the rankings this week at #32, to Atkins. The match got off to an inauspicious start, as Aleks Kovacevic/Kweisi Kenyatte quickly dropped their doubles match on court 1 6-2. However, the lower courts roared back for the Illini as Alex Brown/Zeke Clark won 7-5 on 2 and Siphosothando Montsi/Noe Khlif won 6-4 on 3. The momentum continued into singles play as every single Illini won in straight sets. Khlif (6-2, 6-2) picked up his win first on court 5, followed by Kova on 1 (6-3, 6-4) and Kenyatte on 6 (7-5, 6-2). They played through, and Montsi (6-1, 7-6 (5)), Brown (7-6 (5), 6-1), and Clark (6-3, 7-6 (5)) won their matches on courts 2, 3, and 4 respectively to clinch the sweep for the Illini.
The good times rolled into Sunday, as the Fighting Illini women’s tennis team looked to double their win total on the season against Michigan State. Illinois got off to a quick start, as Frazier/Kawai sped to 6-2 win on court 1. Kate Duong/Yeah finished off doubles play with a 6-3 win on 3 to give the Illini a rare doubles point. Singles play was a mixed bag, but that’s fine if you take the doubles point. The less said about Kawai’s performance on court 1 the better, as she lost 6-0, 6-1. Yeah got the lead back, winning 6-4, 6-2 on 5, and Kate Duong doubled that lead with a 6-4, 6-3 win on 2. Belaya came up short on 4 (7-5, 6-4) to give Sparty its second point. Frazier then clinched in straight sets on 6 (7-5, 6-4) to give the Illini their best win on the young season.
The men thanked Nebraska for bringing back Big Ten tennis by bringing out the brooms. A 6-2 win for Brown/Clark on 1 and a 6-2 win for Montsi/Khlif on 3 gave the Illini the doubles point. The two freshest faces in the singles lineup extended that lead even more. The Pride of Forsyth Lucas Horve finished his match first, winning 6-2, 6-0 on court 6. La Fierté de la France Noe Khlif followed suit with a 6-0, 6-1 victory on 4 (apologies, the only French I know is from watching an Lupin with the dubs because I didn’t realize you could switch it off on Netflix, so I had to resort to google translate). Montsi clinched on 1 with a 6-3, 6-2 win, giving the Illini another sweep.
A couple thoughts:
- I’ll start with the men first. I think coach Brad Dancer tinkered with his doubles and singles lineups for two wildly different reasons. The changes in the singles lineup were just to get some players some run. Freshman Hunter Heck was struggling a bit, so why not see what the senior Khlif could do? Kova might be a bit OP against the Huskers, so why not let Horve get a match under his belt? Illini singles play has been a strength, so this wasn’t a fix and more of a depth development sort of move
The doubles lineup hasn’t been stellar. Siphs/Q haven’t been great at 1 doubles lately, and Illini doubles overall hasn’t been too much of a strength the past few years. This feels like Dancer throwing spaghetti at a pristine wall as opposed to the singles wall which has been wallpapered by pasta. He might’ve stumbled into a solution with AB and Zeke at 2. Court 3 has been solid too with whoever’s been thrown there. If Dancer can slide the pieces around to unlock 1 doubles, they’ll be in business.
- Big props to Lucas Horve. The redshirt freshman went 1-6 in singles last season, the one win coming in a supertiebreak after the match against Notre Dame was already clinched. Each match was absolutely buck wild and made no sense. Case in point, his match against Florida’s Lukas Greif, which Horve lost 6-7 (1), 6-0, 4-6. Today, however, he cruises to 6-2, 6-0 with relatively few twists and turns. Granted, Nebraska isn’t quite at the level of the teams Horve was in the lineup against last season, but it certainly is a confidence booster
- I have no choice but to adore Iowa Hawkeyes men’s tennis. Due to “budget constraints from the pandemic,” the Iowa athletic department decided to cut men’s tennis along with a couple of other sports. Now, you might point out that the athletic department got a massive donation a few years ago just for men’s tennis that would’ve funded it for years, and you might point out that it was a program on the rise, managing to get up to a #20 ranking before the season was halted last season. I also might point out that from following college football and the playoff rankings that I know objectively that Iowa AD Gary Barta is either dumber than a box of rocks or is a habitual liar. But we’d eventually conclude that the decision, however idiotic it might be, has already been made.
The Iowa men’s tennis team isn’t going down without a fight though. Instead of wearing black and gold, they’re wearing bright red. They’re doing other stuff too (here’s some links to local outlets), but wearing red is just super annoying because it’s not a great look for the athletic department and the athletic department can’t really retaliate. What are they gonna do, cut the program again? It’s just delightful.
- I don’t have much more to say about the men’s tennis team this weekend. They did what they were supposed to do (and possibly more against a decent Hawkeye team). Next Sunday they host a tough but beatable Northwestern team at 3 Central. The really important match is elsewhere though. Michigan and Ohio State meet up for the first of two matchups this season. The Buckeyes already beat the Illini earlier this season and are in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten title. The only real speed bumps they might face in conference play are their matches with the Wolverines. If you’re an Illini fan, you’d want Michigan to win both. That way, if the Illini beat the Wolverines at Atkins later this season, that might give the Illini the conference title, since the Buckeyes will have two losses and Michigan and Illinois will only have one, but Illinois will have the head-to-head tiebreaker.
- I’ll take this intermission between talking about the men’s and women’s tennis programs to rant about Illini soccer. I’m not writing a full article about their weekend because if you only manage 8 shots over 2 matches, 2 of which were on goal, it’s like you barely even played. It was like watching a Preki-managed St. Louis FC team, which is not a compliment in the slightest. I have 4 solutions for fixing the attack: 1) There aren’t enough numbers going forward. The modern way to fix that is by overlapping the fullbacks. They did that a couple times and it caused some pressure. Do that more. That might leave you prone at the back, but trust JVD, Treiterer, and Sample to shut it down. 2) This might go hand-in-hand with that, but put Pasquale at left fullback. She’ll definitely get forward. 3) Try attacking quickly instead of knocking it around the back. Wisconsin and Minnesota both pushed plenty of players forward when they got the ball, so they might’ve been susceptible to the counter. 4) Play Eichenbaum alongside Silber (well, behind in the attacking midfield spot, but you get the idea). Please. I beg you. Get two players on the pitch who know how to make a run behind the defense. It’ll divide their attention and possibly lead to an opening somewhere. Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled tennis rambling.
- Some Barta-level idiot predicted that the Illini women’s tennis team would win their first-ever conference title this season and in doing so would surpass Michigan. That fool would like to clarify that the prediction was based on some tacit assumptions that were just assumptions instead of facts. First, that imbecile thought that Asuka Kawai would return to an All-American level after returning to injury. That has not happened yet. Second, that dunce thought that Mia Rabinowitz would be healthy. That also didn’t happen and hasn’t happened yet. Third, that moron thought that Tiffany Huber would transfer in. She is not on the roster, so that apparently didn’t happen, announcement notwithstanding. Add that all up and you have a deep but middling team.
- I’m gonna spend two bullet points on the Duongs (they are not related, at least not closely). The first will be about Kate. The freshman has been the best player in the young season. She’s 4-1 in dual play. The next best has been Ashley Yeah at 2-2. Kate started out at the 5-singles spot and has worked her way up. Interestingly, the results haven’t dropped off as she’s moved up. For historical reference, Asuka was 6-5 at 2 and 5-4 at 1 her freshman year. Kate is currently 1-1 at 2, and if she can stay at or above .500, that’ll bode extremely well for the future
- Now, as for the Duong I haven’t mentioned yet… Emilee Duong’s 2021 season is going to fascinate me for a long time. She was in and out of the singles lineup last season but was thrust to the top two singles courts to start this season. It hasn’t exactly treated her kindly. She hadn’t won a set let alone a match coming into this weekend. With Kate moving up to court 2, Emilee got relegated to court 3, and I think she’s finding her groove. Her match against Michigan went unfinished, but a 5-7 loss in the first was the best set she had all season on paper. Then, on Sunday, she got off the schneid, winning the first set 7-5. She was down a break 5-4 in the second, but I liked her chances and desperately wanted them to play it out. They didn’t of course.
I’ll give some analysis on her game, but it won’t be good because I was also working on some abstract algebra homework while I was watching her play on Sunday. She can generate a good amount of power, but she’s on the smaller end of players, so it requires a lot of work. If her opponent can hit groundstrokes deep and force Emilee to return while moving laterally or backwards, it takes a lot of venom and accuracy out of her shots. If it’s played short, she has time to wind up and can use some forward momentum to give her shots some oomph. This is true of basically every player, but it’s especially pronounced with Emilee due to her style and size.
Now that she’s going against players who are less likely to force her to literally play with her back against the wall, she can start controlling matches. It’ll take her a bit to calibrate to the new pace of a match, remembering when to be aggressive and when to be patient, but she’s getting there. When she does, the Illini might shock some teams
- I have located Mia Rabinowitz. She spent the Michigan State match at Emilee’s chair acting as a coach/confidant/ballperson. That’s about as close to confirmation that she’s injured as I can get. Also, that’s a very nice voice to have in your ear if you’re trying to figure out how to control a match.
- I’ll try to get more on Sasha Belaya’s issues. I haven’t watched much of her matches this season, partially because they’ve been quickly out of reach and partly because the style of play (topspin heavy groundstrokes until someone makes a mistake) is kind of boring and partly because there haven’t been streams. Maybe a step down to court 4 will put her against more error-prone opponents and thus be more conducive to her style of play. I will write a thorough report after next weekend.
- Overall, I think there are 4 tiers of Big Ten women’s tennis this year. At the top, it’s Northwestern, Michigan, and Ohio State. The tier below is Nebraska and Iowa, then just below that it’s everyone else except Rutgers and Maryland, and then Rutgers and Maryland are locked in the cellar. The next weekend is going to be rough for the Illini because the Huskers and Hawkeyes come to Atkins. I don’t expect a win there, but it’ll be good measuring stick for improvement over the season. After that, the schedule lightens up a good deal. Coupled with some marked improvement, things could be looking up for Illini women’s tennis in the coming weeks.