We’ll start with the men who entered their tournament as the top seed in the western division. I’ll fly through their quarterfinal match against Indiana. Illinois won the doubles points with a 6-2 wins from Alex Brown/Zeke Clark on court 1 and Hunter Heck/Aleks Kovacevic on 3. A 6-1, 6-4 win from Noe Khlif followed by 6-3, 6-2 wins from Kovacevic on 1 and Heck on 3 gave Illinois the 4-0 win. This was expected and was not interesting in the slightest, so I will not discuss this match any further.
The next match was much more interesting. Illinois faced Michigan, one of the B1G 3 in men’s tennis, in the semifinals. Michigan struck first in doubles play with dueling 6-4 wins over Brown/Clark on 1 and Heck/Kovacevic on 3. Illinois steadied the ship early in singles play, winning 5 out of 6 first sets (the answer is Clark). Kovacevic in particular played his best tennis of the year, winning 6-4, 6-1 on court 1. Brown followed with a tidy 6-4, 6-4 win on 3, and then it was Siphosothando Montsi finishing with a 6-2, 6-3 win on 2, putting the score at 3-1 in favor of Illinois. Clark had a rough day at the office, losing 6-4, 7-5 on 4. The 2 lower court matches went a full 3 sets, but Khlif pulled out a 6-1, 7-6 (2), 6-3 win on 6 to clinch a 4-2 win for the Illini and send them to the championship match.
Of course, the other side of the bracket was all chalk from the quarterfinals onward, so Illinois met perennial power Ohio State on Sunday, and the match got off to a surprisingly good start from an orange and blue perspective. Khlif/Montsi finally got to finish a doubles match, winning 6-2, which was followed up by a 6-4 win from Heck/Kovacevic on 3 (and Brown/Clark were up 5-4 with AB serving on 1). Illinois promptly squandered that lead as Montsi couldn’t keep up on court 2 with Cannon Kingsley, the Big Ten Player of the Year. A 6-1, 6-2 loss for Siphos tied things up. Brown then dropped his match on 3 by a 6-3, 6-4 decision, giving Ohio State a 2-1 lead. The next match to finish was Heck’s on 5. The insane scoreline of 0-6, 6-3, 7-5 in favor of the Illinois freshman somehow only tells half of the story (yes, I’ll be telling the other half soon enough), but the important part is that the overall score was all knotted up at 2 afterwards. An uncharacteristic performance from Kova on 1 led to a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 loss, putting Illinois on the brink. However, Noe Khlif put in yeoman’s work to tie things up again with a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 win on 6. It all came down to Zeke Clark because of course it did. It went to third set tiebreaker, because of course it did. Zeke capped off 3 hours and 59 minutes of tennis with a 6-7 (7), 6-3, 7-6 (4) win, because of course he did. With a 4-3 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Illinois Fighting Illini are the 2021 Big Ten Champions.
Now, onto the women. After an up and down season, they entered the conference tournament as the 7 seed. They began the weekend by facing the 10th-seeded Purdue Boilermakers on Thursday morning. Doubles play got off to a good start. Ashley Yeah and Kate Duong got Illinois halfway home with a 6-3 win on court 3, while seniors Emilee Duong and Sasha Belaya were less lucky with a 6-2 loss at 1 doubles. Asuka Kawai and Josie Frazier clinched the doubles point for the Illini with a 7-5 win on court 2. Singles play was a roller coaster. Illinois won 5 out of 6 first sets with Yeah the odd one out on court 4. Belaya was the first to finish with a 6-3, 6-2 win on court 6, but Yeah’s match would only go 2 sets, with her losing 6-2, 6-4 to halve the Illini’s lead. A straight-set 6-3, 6-3 win for Frazier on 5 put Illinois on the precipice. However, the other 3 matches took a nasty turn as Purdue won the second set on all 3 courts. Emilee Duong’s match was next to finish, a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 loss to make the overall score Illinois 3, Purdue 2. Despite having multiple match points in the second set, Katie Duong was unable to convert on any of them. She lost 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, leaving it all up to Kawai on court 1. Nobody was able to hold serve in the final 3 games of the third set on 1 which led to a tiebreaker. Despite being up 5-0, Kawai let her opponent back into the tiebreak but eventually pulled it off winning a nailbiter 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (8) which gave Illinois the slimmest of 4-3 wins.
Their reward for beating Purdue was a date the next morning with 2nd-seeded Michigan. The doubles session started eerily similarly to that of the day before, with E. Duong/Belaya losing 6-1 on court 1 and Yeah/K. Duong winning 6-3 on 3. However, Kawai/Frazier couldn’t produce any more magic and lost 6-3 on 2, giving Michigan the early 1-0 advantage. It started badly with Michigan winning 5 out of 6 first sets (Kawai being the odd one out this time). It went from bad to worse as Belaya and Yeah lost in straight sets 6-1, 7-5 on 6 and 6-3, 6-4 on 4, respectively. However, Illinois’ top 3 players in Kawai, Katie Duong, and Emilee Duong all were heading to third sets which provided at least a little hope. That hope was dashed when Josie Frazier couldn’t win her second-set tiebreaker. She lost 6-2, 7-6 (1) which gave Michigan the 4-0 sweep. Illinois women’s tennis season came to an end in the Big Ten quarterfinals with a 9-9 record.
A couple things:
- I’ll start with the women. I can’t really give any details about how they played because for some reason there were no streams of their matches. Instead, I’ll do sort of end-of-season debrief. They did exactly what they were supposed to: beat Purdue, lose to Michigan. I mean, losing sucks, but many teams won’t beat Michigan, and most teams will get stomped by the Wolverines where there’s not really a discernible path to victory. Finishing 9-9 wasn’t the expectation, but when your #2 player is out for the year and your #1 isn’t the same player she was before an injury last season, it’s respectable.
- A quick shoutout to the seniors: Sasha Belaya, Emilee Duong, Mia Rabinowitz, and Asuka Kawai. There are two things we should remember about this class. One, on their senior day, they beat Northwestern, which is absolutely insane. Two, during their time at Illinois, they lifted the team up a tier. Illinois women’s tennis is historically middling, but this group put them in the next tier, particularly sans injuries. Like, there’s the top tier with Michigan, Northwestern, and Ohio State, and then there’s the next tier which was firmly occupied by the Illini…well, not this year, but the three years prior to this year. While fairly nebulous, that’s a solid achievement, and if this program blows up (in a good way), you can look to the 2021 senior class as one of the major catalysts of that.
- I am pretty wary about next year though. My concerns are mostly centered around the #2 and #3 singles spots. Katie Duong is going to be the clear #1. As for the next 2 spots…woof, I don’t know. Ashley Yeah was okay at the 4 and 5 spots, finishing an even 8-8 in Big Ten play there. Josie Frazier was very reliable down in the lower courts, sporting a combined 12-5 record on courts 5 and 6. Emily Casati split her four matches at the 6 spot. If they can all take a decent step forward this offseason, that’d be very helpful. I don’t expect next season’s team to improve a whole lot considering they’re losing 3 seniors, two of which occupied 2 of the top 3 spots. The growth of the rising juniors will decide plenty for the 2022 version of Fighting Illini women’s tennis.
- All that said, I’ll make an early singles lineup prediction for next season:
1. Katie Duong
2. Josie Frazier (I think she has the highest ceiling of anyone on the team)
3. Ashley Yeah
4. Kathryn Treiber
5. Emily Casati
6. Megan Heuser
Kida Ferrari is the first player off the bench. I desperately want her to play a bunch just so I can make a ton of Formula 1 puns.
- Onto the men now. I’ll start by explaining Hunter Heck’s 0-6, 6-3, 7-5…masterpiece? Sure, I’ll call it that. The first set was probably what everybody expected. Heck’s opponent was JJ Tracy, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year who hadn’t dropped a singles match all season. An 0-6 set might be a bit much, Tracy winning a set, if not the match, dominantly had to be the expectation. Then Heck fought back. An early break held throughout the set for him to even things up to a set apiece. The final set was a journey. Tracy went up 5-2, but Heck won FIVE STRAIGHT GAMES to win the final set 7-5.
This is the first I’ve really seen Heck play since he’s been on his hot streak. He’s absurdly quick. I swear, in those last two sets, he was teleporting around the court. He also has a surprisingly strong racket, particularly for someone his size. It’s a matter of staying locked in, which is why it’s great that Zeke has taken him under his wing. They have pretty similar styles, relying on speed first. Heck can reliably hit winners though. It’s a matter of getting the mental game locked down. If he can do that, the sky’s the limit.
- Noe Khlif’s match against Ohio State was fun. His opponent, Robert Cash, relied on a serve-and-volley game. For Noe, when Cash was serving, it was a matter of getting his returns low. If there was any sort of height on Noe’s returns, Cash had an easy winner. Return it low, and Cash would pop it up, giving Noe a chance. By the third set, Noe could do this about half the time, so most of Cash’s service games would go to a deuce. Since Noe was holding serve pretty comfortably, it just took one deuce to fall the Frenchman’s way, and well…
If I ever hit a shot like that, I would give up tennis forever and weep, for there would be no more tennis worlds for me to conquer.
- A little slapdash: Kova’s win against Michigan was the best I’ve seen him play I think. AB’s Michigan opponent wore his hat inside out like he wanted a rally. I’d like to think AB only won because he didn’t want to lose to a guy who looked that dumb. I’m shocked with how dominant Illinois’ doubles play was against Ohio State. The doubles lineup is settled and it gives Illinois a chance every match. Zeke’s opponent was possibly the most oddly proportioned person I’ve ever seen. I’m happy to see representation for my fellow long-torso’d men though.
- Zeke Clark. What else is there to say? In his five seasons at Illinois, the team has never beaten Ohio State. In his final chance, he gets the job done to win the Big Ten title. You can’t write a script like this.
The match was fascinating. Zeke’s opponent, Kyle Seelig, had a particularly powerful forehand that he could pull down the line. Coupled with serve from the ad court that kicked Zeke out wide, this kept Seelig in the match in the third set. If Zeke could work around that forehand, particularly when Zeke was out of position, the match would be on Zeke’s terms: long, drawn out points that only end when someone makes a mistake. As Zeke would adjust his game around it, Seelig would try uncorking a winner when there wasn’t really much of a chance, so either Zeke would return it, or the shot would go out. The chess match between the two super seniors was outstanding. It came down to will in the end, and nobody can outwill Zeke Clark.
- What the Illini men pulled off this weekend is unprecedented in the conference. For the past 20 years or so, Illinois and Ohio State have been in a tier of their own. Michigan finally has grown into a team that can challenge both (they split their matches with Ohio State this season). The national rankings this year are messed up, but both Illinois and Ohio State coming in would’ve been top-10 teams while Michigan would’ve been hovering around 15 in a normal year. Beating Ohio State is wild, but beating Michigan in the day before as well would’ve been unfathomable before this past weekend.
- So the Big Dance is next. The selection show takes place tonight at 6:30 on the NCAA website. The top 16 seeds host the first 2 rounds. The pundits have Illinois at around the 7 seed, which should make the early rounds of their bracket relatively easy, especially in the friendly confines of the Atkins Tennis Center. The later rounds will be held at the USTA national campus in Orlando, Florida. A possible magical run for the Fighting Illini begins this Friday.