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 3.
Spring has sprung, and Big Ten tennis is finally heading outside. The changing weather has brought some stiff winds with it, which wreaked havoc in the first Illini tennis match of the weekend, the women hosting Michigan State.
It got off to an inauspicious start that set the tone for the rest of the day. Sasha Belaya figured out the wind early on 2, and her partner Emilee Duong eventually did as well to win their doubles match 6-3. However, Asuka Kawai and Josier Frazier weren’t as sharp, losing 2-6 on 1. It all came down to court 3, but Katie Duong and Ashley Yeah couldn’t quite grind it out on court 3, losing 4-6 which gave Michigan State an early 1-0 lead overall. Katie Duong cruised on court 3, winning 6-2, 6-2. Right next to her on court 1, Kawai put up a fight but ended up losing 4-6, 4-6. Then, the sophomores came through on the lower courts, as Frazier won 6-4, 6-3 on 6 and Yeah prevailed 6-3, 7-6 (4). All the Illini needed to happen then was one of the two remaining seniors to win their singles match…which they didn’t. Belaya fell apart 6-4, 3-6, 3-6 on 5 and Emilee Duong made it close but couldn’t quite manage to pull it off on 2, 5-7, 6-4, 5-7. Putting all that together, Illinois lost a heartbreaker, 4-3.
Meanwhile, the men’s team headed to Iowa City for a matchup with a tricky Hawkeye squad. Zeke Clark and Alex Brown lost their first doubles match of the season on court 1 to the #10 team in the nation. However, Aleks Kovacevic and Hunter Heck cruised 6-2 on 2 while Siphosothando Montsi and Noe Khlif won 6-4 on 3 to clinch the doubles point for the Illini. In singles play, Heck, Clark, and Khlif all won their matches to clinch quickly for the Illini. They played through, and Montsi lost his first match of the season 3-6, 6-4, 4-6 while Lucas Horve stayed undefeated with a 4-6, 7-6, 1-0 (1) win. Brown lost a tight match on 2 by a score of 4-6, 6-2, 5-7 to bring the final score to Illinois 5, Iowa 2.
The matches continued Sunday, with the women meeting the Boilermakers indoors in a rainy West Lafayette. Coach Evan Clark switched up the lineup, putting Belaya/E. Duong on 1 and Frazier/Kawai on 2, but it produced similar results. Belaya/Duong got run off the court 1-6 while Frazier/Kawai dominated 6-2. This time, K. Duong/Yeah came through, winning 6-4 and securing the doubles point. In singles, Emilee Duong had a rough time on court 2, losing 1-6, 1-6. Katie Duong once again crushed her opponent on 3, winning 6-3, 6-2. Josie Frazier was perfect in singles play this weekend, winning her match on court 5 6-4, 6-2. Emily Casati, subbing in for Belaya, was also perfect this weekend, winning her lone match on court 6 6-2, 6-3 to clinch a 4-1 victory for the Illini.
Meanwhile, the men’s team was in Lincoln to take on the 1-12 Nebraska Cornhuskers. The only shaky part of the day was in doubles, where Brown and Lucas Horve lost 3-6 on court 1. However, Khlif/Montsi won 6-3 on 2 and Clark/Heck won 6-4 on 3 to keep the clean sheet. Singles got over quickly, with 3 Illini winning in straight sets. Clark uncharacteristically finished first on court 3, winning 6-2, 6-0. Heck was hot on his heels with a 6-1, 6-4 win on 4, and Brown finished off the day with a score of 6-4, 6-3 win on 2. With only 2 matches remaining and only 1 conference loss on the season, this clinched the West Division title for Illini men’s tennis.
A couple thoughts:
- I was there in person for one of these matches! I know! Me, a journalist? That’s insane. Anyway, I tamped down my emotions and wore a perfectly neutral Denver Nuggets shirt to at least look like an impartial media member for the women’s Michigan State match. Here are the insights I can give you that I don’t think I would’ve noticed just watching on my laptop:
1. The wind was a major factor. Granted, I think the players generally held serve, but they were more likely to be broken when the wind was at their back because their tosses would be blown off kilter and their groudstrokes would sail. There were plenty of rolled eyes and unused service tosses to go around.
2. The Illini doubles pairings wore matching headwear. Kawai/Frazier wore white visors, Belaya/Duong wore blue visors, and Duong/Yeah wore white caps. Either Coach Clark chooses his lineup based on hats, the players coordinate, or it’s all a coincidence.
3. It always blows my mind when I hear how much noise goes on at a college tennis match. This one was taken to a new level by the construction of the indoor softball complex mere feet from the courts.
4. In the second set, Sasha got into a very heated conversation with the chair umpire about…something. I don’t know. I was sitting over court 1 so I only caught pieces of it. Lots of gesticulating though. She ended up winning the game 2 points later, so it was all kind of moot.
5. As Emilee Duong was making a comeback (more on this later) in the third set, all the other matches had finished so every player was standing on the court over cheering on their player as they do. During this, the Spartan team was eerily quiet? Like, very muted celebrations after Lauren Lemonds won a point. It was bizarre but effective though.
That’s about it. I also went to the Illini soccer match on Thursday night, so I got to see 2 heartbreaking Illini losses in person. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
- You may be asking how the team won on the road at Michigan State but lost at home. The answer is the doubles point. Katie Duong, Frazier, and Yeah won their singles matches both times. Frazier/Kawai’s and K. Duong/Yeah’s doubles matches flipped from wins to losses, and the reason for that is probably Michigan State figuring out a doubles lineup that works. Their 3 doubles team has been dropped, and now they have a new 1 doubles team on top of the lineup.
- I think Coach Clark is going to undo his lineup changes. Katie played at 2 singles for a bit but struggled so she was moved down to 3 where she seems to have found her mojo again. Emilee sorted things out on 3 and moved up to 2, but she just seemed broken on Sunday. The same goes for 1 and 2 doubles, even though it’s a bit bold to make a change after just one match.
- Emilee Duong…I don’t know. What a bizarre weekend. Her play was bizarre. She would make these fantastic plays like returning something she had no business getting near but then she’d make mistakes on the simplest of plays. Like, I think she put more overhead smashes into the net than she did over the net. Also, the flow to the match was bizarre, particularly in the third set. She got down 2-5 but fought her way back to tie it at 5-5 but then drop the next two games to lose it 5-7, thus completing the ultimate Fake Rally. Add to that a pretty emphatic loss on Sunday, and you have a weekend that’ll make you consider getting an exorcism.
- Overall, this probably won’t be counted as a successful season. They’re currently 7-8, and this Sunday, they host currently #7-but-dropping Northwestern in the final match of the season. If they lose that, they’ll likely have their first losing season since 2011 (not counting the Covid-shortened season last year).
Here’s the thing: I think the Illini are going to win on Sunday. I do. Really. Yes, Northwestern won 6-1 earlier this season, but it was a tight 6-1 if that makes any sense. Kawai, Frazier, and Katie Duong all lost in 3 sets, and Yeah lost 3-6, 5-7. The Illini have clearly improved over the season, and they play better at home. The question is if Northwestern has improved enough over the season to counteract that. I think (hope?) that some senior day magic will push one or more of Belaya, Emilee Duong, and Kawai into a massive win, but that might just be me being overly optimistic. Either way, I think it’ll be closer than what the #7 team in the nation playing a team that’s under .500 usually is.
- Time to talk about the men I guess. They did what was expected. Iowa and Nebraska have combined for a total of 5 wins out of 30 tries after this weekend, and 2 of those came against each other. If Illinois was playing at the level they were at last year, they would’ve stomped both these teams. This year, it was no contest. There wasn’t really much to take from these matches.
- Don’t look now, but Hunter Heck is on a tear. In singles, he’s on a 5-match winning streak, all of them straight setters too. Granted, the competition been slightly weaker as of late, but let me isolate two data points from his season: both his matches against Minnesota’s Daniel Martin. On February 28, Martin defeated Heck 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. On April 4, Heck defeated Martin 6-2, 6-2. If this Heck’s hot streak can continue, that’ll be massive for postseason play.
- Congratulations to Zeke Clark for winning his 100th career singles match as a Fighting Illini. He’s helped a bit by having about 4 and half years to compile them, but that’s an impressive number. He’s currently sitting in 16th place in Illini history for career singles wins. I’ll save you a trip to the record books and tell you it’s Ryler DeHeart with 138.
- Hooray! We won the West Division title! It was up for grabs at the beginning of the season between Illinois, Northwestern, and Iowa, but Illini men’s tennis is back to being ILLINI MEN’S TENNIS, so it’s been pretty straightforward. They have a regular season match at Northwestern this Sunday and a makeup date at Indiana the following Saturday. The next major hurdle will likely be the Big Ten Tournament Championship against either Ohio State or Michigan probably. The Illini are currently ranked #14, but a Big Ten Tournament title will likely snag them a #2 seed in the NCAAs at least. It’s nice that ILLINI MEN’S TENNIS is back so we can worry about Elite Eight matchups instead of just making the tournament.