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 4.
Rivalry week in Big Ten tennis was supposed to cap off the regular season. It did for the women’s team, who celebrated Senior Day against Northwestern on Sunday afternoon. It didn’t for the men, however, who traveled to Evanston for their penultimate match before the postseason. Despite the slightest of differences in the teams’ respective schedule, these two matches had plenty of fireworks.
The 11th-ranked Illini men’s tennis team, fresh off clinching the Big Ten West Division title, were expected to roll against the Wildcats. The match got off to a rough start, as the Illini dropped the doubles point due to losses from Siphosothando Montsi/Noe Khlif on 2 and Lucas Horve/Hunter Heck on 3. A quick 6-1, 6-2 win from Zeke Clark on court 3 evened things up, but the Illini were put on the brink with a 4-6, 3-6 loss for Alex Brown on 2 and a 2-6, 6-7 (7) loss for Horve on 6. However, the Illini came storming back. Khlif halved Northwestern’s lead with a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 win on 4, and Montsi brought the Illini level with a 2-6, 7-6, 6-3 win on 1 (apologies, the box score doesn’t have the point totals for the tiebreak in set 2). It all came down to the freshman Hunter Heck on court 5, and fortunately his excellent play continued as he clinched it with a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2 win.
Meanwhile, the women faced a much taller task, hosting the #7 Wildcats, but the match got off to a similar start. Asuka Kawai/Josie Frazier dropped their match on court 1 3-6, but Sasha Belaya/Emilee Duong took theirs on 2 6-4. It all came down to Ashley Yeah/Kate Duong on 3, but a 6-7 (4) loss gave Northwestern the doubles point. The start of singles play put Illinois’ collective back against the wall, as Emily Casati and Yeah dropped their matches 2-6, 1-6 on 6 and 2-6, 2-6 on 4 respectively. Once again, the Illini came back. It started with the fascinating scoreline of 0-6, 6-3, 6-4 from Kawai on 1 which was quickly followed by 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 decision in favor of Emilee Duong on 3. Frazier tied it up with a 6-4, 7-6 (1) win on 5. Once again, it all came down to a freshman, this time Kate Duong on court 2, and once again the freshman came through. A 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-3 win clinched the 4-3 upset for the Illini.
A couple things:
- I’ll start with the men, who flirted with danger on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, Northwestern is good, but Illinois should have comfortably won. Like, 4-3 is a very slim margin, but Siphos had to win a second-set tiebreaker to stay alive so it’s even slimmer than that. Not playing Kova was a bold choice on the road against the #39 team in the coaches poll (which seems like the most accurate poll to me at the moment).
- I don’t really have much to say about the individuals. Noe Khlif and Siphos Montsi have been revelations this season, and as I mentioned last week, Hunter Heck is on an absolute tear lately. And of course, Zeke Clark is Zeke Clark. Oh wait, here’s what I’ll say: Zeke Clark is on an absolute tear lately as well which is best shown in his quickness of his matches as of late. He’s undefeated on the year in singles play, but in his last five matches (all of which he won in straight sets) he’s been either the first, second, or third singles match to finish in four of them. If you’ve seen him play, you know that this is almost unfathomable.
- Some postseason prospects for this team: if they win this weekend at Indiana (which they should), they’ll be one of the top 2 teams in the Big Ten. The question is if they’ll be the top seed or not if they mix the divisions together. It’s been abundantly clear that there are 3 teams that have been the class of the Big Ten: Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan. The #1 seed in the conference tournament will only have to face one of the other two, while the other two will face each other in the semifinals in the round before. There isn’t a whole of information about how the tournament format. Will it be divided into divisional brackets with the winners of those facing off in the final (this would be good for Illinois), or will the divisions be mixed together (with a loss on their record to Ohio State, this might be bad for Illinois)? We’ll find out for sure next weekend.
That tournament will be very important for the Illini in terms of NCAA tournament seeding. Illinois might stay in the top 16 and might host the first 2 rounds if they lose to Michigan or Ohio State, but going 1/1 or 2/2 will guarantee it while going 0/1 or 1/2 won’t. So yeah, there’s a lot riding on just the tournament format.
- Now, on to the women’s team. I don’t think I can adequately describe emotionally how insane them just beating Northwestern is, so maybe some stats will. Illinois women’s tennis hadn’t beaten the Wildcats in their last 20 attempts before Sunday. Overall, it is Illinois’ ninth win in 64 tries against Northwestern in their history, which is less than the 11 wins they have against both Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville despite facing them only 16 and 14 times respectively. Their last win over Northwestern came on April 4, 2004, which was 6,204 days before Sunday. There have been 2 coaching changes at the program since then (Sujay Lama to Michelle Dasso and then Dasso to Evan Clark).
- AND I PREDICTED IT. BETWEEN THIS AND ME SCHEDULING “BOWLING” AND “GRILLING AND BBQ SCIENCES” AS CLASSES FOR MY LAST SEMESTER AT ILLINOIS, I FEEL LIKE A GOD (I’m also taking “Linear Programming,” “Elementary Number Theory,” and “Gender Communications,” so you can politely shut up about me taking a semester off). ANYWAY, IF YOU DIDN’T CLICK ON THAT LINK ABOVE OR DON’T BELIEVE ME, HERE’S THE IMPORTANT PARAGRAPH:
“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.”
So yeah, I do leave a couple nuggets of wisdom hidden in the general rambling I do in these recaps, and my Twitter bio of “@Champaign_room’s resident genius” actually has some truth to it now.
- So how did they do it? Well, Northwestern is a weird team. They were the #7 team in the nation, but they only had 2 ranked singles players, both of which aren’t ranked particularly high (Maria Shusharina at #91 and Clarissa Hand at #94). For comparison, the #11 Illini men’s team has 3 ranked players: Zeke at #61, Kova at #86, and Siphos at #112. So how Northwestern wins so much is with excellent depth. What is one of Illini women’s tennis strengths this season? Decent depth. Basically, the Illini did excellently at the top singles courts and scraped out a result with their depth, Josie at court 5. A lot of things have to go right for an upset to happen, and team construction was one of those things that went Illinois’ way on Sunday.
- Also, all those singles wins were all extremely gritty. I mean, Josie’s matches are always struggles no matter what the final score is, but all the others took the full 3 sets. Asuka was swept in her first set, and her third set was even until she found a late break. Emilee’s match was basically decided when she came back from down 15-40 to hold serve and take a 3-0 lead in the third set. Katie’s match…woo buddy. She had multiple match points in the second set but couldn’t convert. In the third set, the freshman was cool under pressure while her grad student opponent faltered (In particular, Byrne double faulted to give Katie a break lead at 4-2 she didn’t relinquish).
- That wraps up the regular season for the women’s tennis team. They finish 8-8, good for 7th in the conference. Considering they lost their #2 singles player Mia Rabinowitz to injury and their #1 singles player in Asuka Kawai isn’t quite as dominant as she was before her injury last season, that’s a solid result. Up next is the Big Ten Tournament in Madison, Wisconsin. The bracket looks like this:
Illinois kicks things off against Purdue next Thursday at 9 a.m. The Illini won both matches home and away against the Boilermakers by the same 4-3 score. The winner gets the privilege to lose to the 2-seeded Michigan Wolverines next Friday at 9 a.m.