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Illinois Men’s Tennis advances to Sweet 16

Two routine wins over DePaul and Notre Dame set up a showdown with #1 Florida.

Craig Pessman / Illini Athletics

Despite the NCAA’s best efforts*, Illinois is moving on. While expectations for the overall #16 seed would be for some struggles in their first two rounds, Illinois cruised in the two matches they hosted at Atkins Tennis Center.

* - To make a long story short, some conference-only schedules caused chaos in the computer rankings, which hurt the Big Ten. The NCAA said they would fix this, and they did to bump teams into the tournament, but they didn’t fix the seedings in the tournament which screwed over Illinois. The Illini should’ve been about the 8 seed, but instead they’re the 16 seed which means their third-round matchup is extremely tough instead of only just slightly tough.

The Illini’s first matchup with DePaul got of to a rocky start though. SIphosothando Montsi and Noe Khlif dropped their match at 2 doubles 6-3, and then Aleks Kovacevic and Hunter Heck fell 6-4 on court 3 to give the Blue Demons the early 1-0 lead. However, the Illini came back in singles play, winning four straight straight-set matches to clinch the 4-1. Heck (6-1, 6-1), Montsi (6-1, 6-3), Zeke Clark (6-3, 6-2), and Khlif (7-5, 6-2) each put a put on the board to put Illinois into the second round.

A Saturday with Notre Dame awaited the Fighting Illini, and they put the Fighting Irish on the back foot early. A pair of 6-3 wins from Montsi/Khlif on court 2 and Kovacevic/Heck on 3 gave Illinois the early advantage. From there, the Illini sprinted through their singles matches. Khlif dominated 6-2, 6-0 on 6 while Kovacevic and Alex Brown mirrored each other with 6-2, 6-2 wins on court 1 and court 3, giving Illinois the 4-0 sweep over Notre Dame.

A couple things:

- This was expected, but it shouldn’t have been. Yes, that’s confusing. Illinois should’ve dominated both DePaul and Notre Dame. The Irish were the clear second-best team in Illinois’ 4-team pod, but they are about the 34th-best team in the nation, while Illinois, who are about the 8th-best team in the country, are ranked 16th. Either way you slice it for the Illini, they should have beaten Notre Dame comfortably. However, if the bracket was truly fair, Illinois should’ve faced the 17th-best team in the country. This wasn’t the case for some reason.

All of this is very confusing, so let me condense it down into 1 run-on sentence: As the lowest overall seed, Illinois should’ve had a tough second round at least, but for some reason, they drew Notre Dame in their second round, who are ok, but Illinois was expected to beat them comfortably. This probably cleared up nothing, but it cleared up nothing more efficiently.

- There’s not much to learn from these two matches in terms of quality of play, but I did notice two major things. The first was how much fun Kova was having. In his singles match against Notre Dame, he was dominating so much that he decided to go for aces on some second serves. In between points he was laughing with the sizeable crowds at Atkins. He is Illinois’ most exciting tennis player, and when he’s feeling it, it’s incredible.

- The second major thing is Noe Khlif. Noe and I have three things in common: 1) We are both students at the University of Illinois. 2) We are both at least a little French. 3) We both run around our backhands as much as we can. Now, I understand why one of us does so (it’s because it’s atrocious), while the other’s backhand is outstanding in the few glimpses I’ve had of it, so I don’t really understand.

- There were pretty sizeable crowds at Atkins on Friday and Saturday. The official chair seating was about as full as the health department would allow, but what struck me was the significant number of people who watched from the grass on the north side of the courts. I already know that Illini fans are the greatest in the world, and that just helped confirm it again.

- You can read into the Illini dropping the doubles point as much as you want. Doubles has been Illinois’ weakest part of their game this season, and that just confirmed it. The Illini have proven that they can beat anybody in doubles like Ohio State and USC, but they’re definitely inconsistent.

- Up next for Illinois men’s tennis is #1 Florida. The Illini will look to pull off the massive upset at 6 p.m. CT on Monday down at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida.