After a year marked by remarkable stability, the uncertainty of our times has caught up with Illinois Tennis. Both teams returned very similar rosters for the 2021 season to their covid-shortened 2020 squads with a couple of additions, but the teams had massively different results.
Sparked by seniors Aleks Kovacevic, Zeke Clark and Noe Khlif, the Illini men’s tennis team had its most successful season since its run to the Elite Eight in 2018. Two massive upsets at the ITA indoor championships kicked off a strong year which led to a Big Ten division championship. In the Big Ten tournament, the Illini finally slayed the Buckeye beast, winning their first match against Ohio State and their first B1G Tournament title since 2015. A good run in the NCAA tournament earned Brad Dancer’s squad a Sweet Sixteen berth, where the Illini graciously bowed out against the #1 seed and eventual champion Florida Gators.
Meanwhile, things were slightly bumpier for the women. Coach Evan Clark’s first recruiting class returned for their senior season, but the team missed its first NCAA Tournament since 2017. All-American Asuka Kawai returned from injury but couldn’t return to her world-beating form. Mia Rabinowitz sat out the whole season with an injury. Emilee Duong, after spending her junior year hovering around the 5 or 6 singles spots, made the jump up to around the No. 2 spot, where she couldn’t quite find her footing. Sasha Belaya had a nightmare of a season, going 4-11 over the full season and 2-9 in Big ten play in singles competition.
All these athletes have moved on, meaning the programs enter 2022 with massive influxes of talent. Let’s take a look at where all these new pieces will fit with the returners.
Men’s Roster Preview
We’ll start with the returners. The Illini have two All-Americans coming back for 2022, the most recent being Siphosothando Montsi. The South African was a revelation at No. 2 singles last year, compiling a 16-3 record, garnering unanimous All-B1G honors, and defeating an overall seed in Ole Miss’ Finn Reynolds in the NCAA singles tournament to earn those All-American honors. The junior stands at a relatively 5-foot-8, so he doesn’t hit the cover off the ball. He also doesn’t have the Zeke Clark-esque speed to seemingly teleport around the court. What he does have is the technical ability to force his opponents into errors and the positioning to take advantage of those errors. It isn’t eye-popping tennis*, but it is extremely effective. Now, as an anxious person, I’m a bit concerned that I can’t find anything about him competing lately, particularly at Georgia Tech’s MLK Invitational this past weekend. Tennis information outside of collegiate duals is at times scant for college players, and he still is on the Illini roster, which calms down those nerves a tiny bit. What I’m trying to say is there are a couple of red flags here, but chances are I’m worrying about nothing and Siphos will occupy one of the top singles spots on the team.
*His match against Inaki Montes de la Torre to help clinch the win against #7 Virginia at the ITA Indoors was among the most entertaining Illini tennis matches I’ve ever seen though.
The other All-American is Alex Brown. The Urbandale, Iowa native was particularly impressive during the covid-shortened 2020 season, which got him a banner at Atkins. He wasn’t too effective during the 2021 season, going 9-10 in singles play and 12-8 in doubles, which probably led to him coming back for one more year. He’ll likely come into the season with some confidence after a strong fall season which helped get him ranked in the preseason singles poll. If you want your tennis to go quick, look no further than Alex Brown. The 6-foot-5 lefty has a very strong serve but not a whole lot of footspeed, so he doesn’t grind out points basically ever. He also doesn’t waste time between serves, keeping the pace of his matches quick. He settled in at the No. spot last year, but if he regains his 2020 form, he could challenge Siphos for one of the top spots.
The other returner that saw substantial time in the singles lineup last season is sophomore Hunter Heck. He had a rollercoaster of a 2021 season, muddling through the early part of the season before putting together a 9-match winning streak that fueled Illinois’ good form at the end of the year. His crowning achievement was his 0-6, 6-3, 7-5 win that was every bit as insane as a scoreline like that would indicate against B1G Freshman of the Year JJ Tracy of Ohio State. This was the Buckeye’s only loss in dual play the ENTIRE YEAR. I’m still having issues fathoming it. In terms of how HH plays, he also stands 5-foot-8 and is a bit stout (he’s in shape, but stout), but somehow, he has more power and speed than you’d expect. He has enough speed to grind out points, but usually his power ends them earlier. If his growth last season is any indicator of future growth (and his win over the #60 player singles player in the nation at the MLK Invite is a good sign of this), Hunter Heck will be an important part of Illini tennis for many years to come.
The only other player that saw a reasonably regular spot in the lineup is senior Kweisi Kenyatte. He spent the first part of the season playing No. 6 singles before a hand injury cut his season short. The 6-foot-8 former Valparaiso Crusader (he left before the name change) has an absolute bomb of a serve that sits comfortably above 130 mph according to the speed guns at Atkins (I swear he consistently hits 140 down the T but can’t find anything to back this up), and his length and decent footspeed for his size allows him to stay in points if his opponent miraculously returns his cannon blasts. He enters the season as the No. 116 singles player in the nation for a reason. If he makes his serve bulletproof, he’s bound to take a step up the lineup.
I’ll lump the other three returners together because while they deserve a mention, they didn’t see much playing time last season to where I could write a whole paragraph about each of them. Lucas Horve saw the court the most out of the three, going 3-1 in spot duty at the No. 6 singles spot. The Forsyth native might’ve found some magic in his doubles partnership with Heck. The duo just beat the third-ranked doubles pairing in the nation this past weekend. Alex Petrov, originally an Iowa commit before the Hawkeyes dropped their men’s tennis program, didn’t see the court last season, but the sophomore might find some spot duty here or there. Nic Meister transferred in from D-III Claremont also didn’t see any action. Like Petrov, he’s solid enough to provide some depth if he’s called upon.
The roster includes four newcomers, one of which is a transfer. Olivier Stuart comes from Mercer University where he reached a program-record No. 46 ranking in singles play. After sitting out last season, the Frenchman enters the season as the No. 90 ranked singles player in the nation.
The three-man freshmen class coming in is absolutely bonkers, with two of them being blue chip recruits and the other being Karlis Ozolins. The Latvian was part of his home country’s Davis Cup team and at one point last year had a UTR that was only a few hundredths off of Kova’s (Kova’s has since risen while Ozolins has dropped a bit). Gabrielius Guzauskas comes from Hinsdale and was the No. 4 overall recruit in this past class, and William Mroz just joined the team as the No. 21 recruit in the class. It’s an insane influx of young talent coming to Urbana, but with such a crowded roster already in place, they may have issues finding a spot in the lineup, especially with Mroz and Ozolins getting added to the roster in the Spring semester.
All this being said, I suppose it’s time for me to project a singles lineup. I won’t even bother with doubles because that always seems to fluctuate like crazy.
- Siphos Montsi
- Alex Brown
- Hunter Heck
- Olivier Stuart
- Kweisi Kenyatte
- Gabrielius Guzauskas
It’s an extremely deep lineup, but going up against the top teams in the country, I worry that the top end of it may not have the world-beating ability that will be necessary to pull out a win. I chose Guzauskas over the other freshman for that sixth spot simply because he was with the team this fall, so that tricky transition for college freshman is further along.
It’s the same thing, different year basically: an extremely tough nonconference schedule followed by a B1G slate that has one or two very important matches. As luck would have it, the most important match is on the road at Ohio State. In a clever bit of scheduling, they managed to schedule the No. 6 Buckeyes at Atkins for what is technically a nonconference match to kick off the year. Similarly, Illinois will also visit the No. 17 Michigan Wolverines in the middle of the nonconference schedule.
As always, Illinois enters conference play battle tested after a gauntlet of a nonconference slate. Seven (or 8, we’ll get to it) of their 14 (or 15, or possibly more, we’ll get to it) nonconference opponents enter the season ranked, and fortunately, they managed to get a nice split of those matchups at home and on the road. As mentioned before, Illinois is travelling to Ann Arbor, but they’re also taking a swing through Florida to play the T-No. 3 Gators and 14 UCF. Before this trip to the Sunshine State, Illinois will play host to No. 13 UNC, No. 2 Baylor, and T-No. 3 TCU as well as Ohio State. Illinois enters the season at No. 23, so we’ll likely learn a lot about this team right away.
As for those parentheticals, the ITA Indoor Tournament takes place during the nonconference season. Illinois starts at the Ole Miss regional against an NC State team that just missed out on the preseason rankings. If the Illini can get past the Wolfpack, they’ll face the winner of No. 18 Ole Miss and No. 24 Oklahoma. If they win that match, they’ll head to Seattle in mid-February for the Indoor National Championships.
The two dates you need to circle on your calendar for conference play are March 25 and April 1. Illinois makes the return trip to Ohio State at the end of March, and Michigan makes their return trip to Atkins to open April. These two matches likely will determine if Illinois wins a B1G regular season title, considering they’ll be heavy favorites in every other match (although Northwestern might be tricky). The Big Ten Tournament takes place at the end of April on the relatively neutral ground of Madison, Wisc. This may not matter, but Illinois is hosting the NCAA Finals at Atkins.
General Overview and Season Predictions
Two major questions will really decide how this season will go. First, can AB find his form from his junior All-American season? If he can, he has a high enough ceiling to compete with the best in the nation, which would give Illinois a much better punch at the top of the lineup. Second, how quickly can the freshmen develop, especially with so much depth in front of them? They are super talented, but they need to develop a proper mentality for the college game, and that usually comes with match experience. Even if they struggle, the baseline of talent currently in front of them should bring this year’s Fighting Illini team to reasonable success, but if the freshmen could show some development like Hunter Heck last year, this team will be formidable.
I don’t think they’ll get past Ohio State, but they’ll have a heck of a battle with Michigan, so second in the B1G seems safe. Nationally, this feels like a team that’ll be on the cusp of hosting duties for first rounds of the NCAAs (especially since the computers will be able to properly rank the B1G teams this season after a full nonconference schedule), but even if they don’t, I think they’ll still make the Sweet Sixteen. It’d take quite the Cinderella run for them to get back to Urbana for the finals.
Women’s Roster Preview
We’ll start from the returners at the top and work our way down. Kate Duong was a revelation for the Illini last year. The then-freshman, now-sophomore started the 2021 season in the 5-hole and worked her way up the lineup to the No. 2 singles spot. With Asuka Kawai good and graduated, Mia Rabinowitz called down to Baton Rouge with LSU, and Emilee Duong using her graduate year with Minnesota, the top singles spot is hers to lose. As for her style of play, I don’t have much to say. She’s a tough out because she isn’t easily overpowered, and she doesn’t rely on a specific style. She very well-rounded and doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses while not relying on a specific strength.
The next two spots in the lineup will likely go to a couple of juniors. Like Kate, Ashley Yeah is also a former blue-chip recruit from California. Yeah entered the lineup at around the No. 4 singles spot her freshman year and has generally stayed there with a record hovering around .500. You could chalk this relative lack of growth due to her freshman year getting derailed by the pandemic, but her development will be key for the Illini this year and next. The good news is that she has the most textbook groundstrokes I’ve ever seen from a player. She’s clearly put in her 10,000 hours, but now it’s time for her to find that spark to take her to the next level.
The other junior that’ll likely have a spot in the top half of the singles lineup is Josie Frazier. The Scottsdale, Az. native probably has the highest ceiling of anyone on the team. Usually, power and height correlate in tennis, but Frazier spent a good portion of the year relying on an underhand serve. Her style relies on continually lobbing the ball deep until her opponent makes a mistake, while relying on her pretty good speed to track down her opponents’ overhead smashes. It doesn’t quite make sense. Clearly, she has the physical gifts to be a very talented player. COVID is unfortunate for a multitude of reasons, but the timing of it during her freshman year hindered her development. This isn’t to say that she isn’t effective. She did manage an 11-5 record in singles play last season, but most of that came down in the 5 and 6 spots. If she can translate that up to the top end of the lineup, that would be massive.
The team returns two other players from last year’s squad. Shivani Ingle is the lone senior on the team and has seen spot action during her previous three years at Illinois, making the lineup in only one conference match during her tenure. Junior Emily Casati has seen the court slightly more than Ingle, splitting her four conference singles matches evenly last season. Coach Evan Clark keeps a very short roster, so these two could battle for a spot in the lineup.
The rest of the team is all freshmen. Kasia Treiber is the No. 2 recruit out of Illinois, just ahead of the No. 3 recruit Megan Heuser. They both are ranked around the No. 30 spot nationally, which means they aren’t blue chip recruits but both 5-stars. Kida Ferrari is the top recruit from Alabama and hovered around the divide between a 5-star and 4-star rating. I have no scouting reports. I meant to watch them this fall at the ITA Midwest regional, but couldn’t for the life of me figure out the scheduling. You have my sincerest apologies. Once I can watch them play, I’ll be sure to report on their games as well as making a pronunciation guide for “Heuser” (my best guess right now is HOY-zer, but HEE-zer, HAY-zer, and HOO-zer are also possibilities) and including an awful Tifosi reference with every recap where Kida plays.
I’d be lying if I said I was giving you a lineup prediction, but here’s where they’ll likely slot in for singles:
- Katie Duong
- Ashley Yeah
- Josie Frazier
- Megan Heuser
- Kasia Treiber
- Kida Ferrari
I think the first 5 will stay comfortably in the lineup, but depending on development and whatnot, Heuser and Treiber might move up a bit. Ferrari could be pushed by Ingle and Casati at times, but as she adjusts to the college game, she’ll hopefully solidify her spot in the lineup, possibly at the 6, but also possibly higher up.
Hey, the season already started! Apologies for being slightly late, but I thought the Bella the Ball Tournament they played in this past weekend wasn’t an officially official tournament (kind of like the MLK Invite the men took part in). It was officially official, and the Illini held their own, losing 6-1 to #11 Baylor and beating BYU 5-2 (the three teams perfectly lazy Susan’d the round robin with BYU beating Baylor 4-3).
The regular nonconference season kicks off today, as the Illini play host to the Kaskaskia College of Cambridge (the notable sister school to the Harvard of Shattuc). The women don’t have quite the non-con gauntlet as the men, but they have a couple of ranked teams on the docket. They’ll travel to Tallahassee to take on No. 15 Florida State. If they manage to pull the upset, they’ll likely face No. 20 Florida. The other guaranteed matchup is on the road at No. 18 Oklahoma on March 6. The home non-conference slate includes another Ivy League team in Cornell and a Braggin’ Rights matchup with Mizzou.
The conference schedule kicks off with a bang with Emilee Duong and the Minnesota Golden Gophers paying a visit on March 18. The B1G schedule is backloaded for the Illini. The first four conference matches are all at home, while matchups with heavy hitters Northwestern and No. 14 Michigan take place in mid-to-late-April. In fact, in what is becoming a bit of a tradition, the Northwestern matchup is also Senior Day for Illinois (and specifically Shivani).
General Overview and Season Prediction
The big questions revolving around this team are the No. 2 and No. 3 singles spots. With Kate’s growth last year, you’d expect her to be at No. 1 singles and be fairly reliable there, and the freshmen have enough talent coming in to cover the lower positions. As for Josie and Ashley, they started down near the bottom of the lineup and generally stayed there, even as players above them struggled. They haven’t shown enough growth since entering college to where I’m confident they can be solid in the top half the lineup. Am I saying that it’s impossible for them to lock down those spots? No, especially since they’re playing catchup from covid-shortened freshmen seasons. However, it’s the part of the singles lineup I have the least amount of confidence in. The top end of the lineup was a bit of an issue last season, and I haven’t seen much to think it’ll be fixed.
All this uncertainty with players bounding up the lineup and an influx of freshmen will prevent me from predicting a ton of success for this year’s version of Illini women’s tennis. I won’t rule out an NCAA berth, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying it’s likely. A mid-table finish in the B1G seems about right, and after a confidence-inducing win against BYU this past weekend, I’ll be a bit bold and say they finish sixth in the league. The good news is that barring transfers, every regular contributor will return next year, so that uncertainty isn’t here to last for the Illini.