The record books for the 2022 Illini tennis were officially cracked open with the official start of dual season this past weekend. Preseason tournaments have passed, and the Illini presented their brand-new squads to the public with five matches at Atkins.
The women kicked things off Thursday by hosting the Harvard Crimson, and the young Illini side got off to a quick start and never looked back. The duo of Katie Duong and Megan Heuser sprinted to a 6-1 win over Duncan/Daujotaite on court 1, and Emily Casati/Kasia Treiber followed suit on 3, beating Huang/You by a similar score to give Illinois the early 1-0 advantage.
Singles play didn’t go much better for the nerds as Illinois didn’t drop a set over the 6 matches. Once again, Duong finished first, this time with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Duncan on 1. Treiber was hot on her heels with a 6-0, 6-2 win against Daujotaite on 5. Josie Frazier decided to have all the odd courts finish before their even counterparts by defeating Marculescu next on court 3 with a 6-3, 6-1 victory to clinch the match for the Illini. However, Kida Ferrari was within DRS range of Frazier and defeated You 6-2, 6-3 on 6. Ashley Yeah joined in on the fun with a 6-3, 6-1 won over Ho on 2, and Megan Heuser put a bow on a perfect 7-0 win for the Illini with a 6-4, 6-2 romp over Gawande on 4.
Things took a 180-degree turn on Saturday, as the men hosted archrival No. 6 Ohio State in a midwinter matinee. The Buckeyes, riding the strength of their No. 1 and 2 nationally ranked doubles pairings got off to a quick start. Hunter Heck and Lucas Horve gave No. 1 Vocel/Cash a run for their money on court 1 but were unable to pull it off in a 5-7 defeat. A court over on 2, Alex Brown and Gabrielus Guzauskas did something similar against the No. 2 duo of Trotter/Boulais but likewise fell 6-7 (3) to give Ohio State the 1-0 lead. Singles play went substantially worse for the Illini. Nic Meister got swept 0-6, 0-6 by Boulais on 6 to double the Buckeyes’ lead. Heck didn’t fair much better on court 2, losing 2-6, 1-6 to No. 5 Vocel. Horve had the unfortunate duty of losing the clinching point, dropping his match 2-6, 0-6 on 4 to No. 14 Tracy. They decided not to play through, making the final score Ohio State 4, Illinois 0.
The competition let up greatly in the back end of the doubleheader as the Cougars of Chicago State visited Atkins in the early evening. Illinois cruised through doubles play, with Brown/Guzauskas defeating Hidalgo Vega/Sandoval 6-2 on 2 and Heck/Horve beating Suler/Perez Plaza 6-1 to give Illinois a 1-0 lead. Alex Petrov quickly doubled that advantage with a 6-0, 6-1 win over Sandoval at 5 singles. Heck followed that up with a 6-2, 6-2 win on 2. Meister finished the sweep with a contentious 6-3, 7-6 win over Zamorski on 6 to give Illinois the 4-0 win.
The women tried their luck with a doubleheader of their own on Sunday, with the Eastern Illinois Panthers first on the docket. Once again, Illinois got off to a hot start in doubles play and never looked back, as Casati/Treiber swept Ellis/Snyder 6-0 on 3. Duong/Heuser were hot on their heels with a 6-1 win over Papavasilopoulos/Steven 6-1 on 1 to give the Illini a 1-0 lead. An impressive display from the three freshmen gave Illinois the early clinch. Ferrari lapped the field with a 6-1, 6-0 win over Steven on 4. Treiber put up the same score against Gouws on 3. Heuser gave Illinois its fourth point with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Bukraba-Ulanova on 2. The teams played through, which gave senior Shivani Ingle her second-ever win as an Illini, this one by a score of 6-0, 6-2 against Perez-Korinko on 6. Duong followed that up with a 6-1, 6-3 win over Papavasiopoulos. Emily Casati completed the sweep on 5 with a 6-2, 7-5 win over Danville native Lauren Ellis.
The women weren’t done though, hosting Chicago State in the early evening. Frazier/Yeah finally finished a doubles match, beating Pukhaeva/Drazic 6-1 at 2 doubles. Casati/Treiber won the race to clinch the doubles point with a 6-3 win over Fuller/Borodina on court 3. Ferrari went from a prance to a gallop with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Morgoshia on 4. Duong efficiently took care of business with a 6-2, 6-0 victory on 1 over Borodina. Yeah clinched with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Pukhaeva on 1, giving the Illini a 4-0 win over Chicago State.
A couple things:
- We’ll start with the men because there’s a lot less to say about them. They pulled no surprises. If you would’ve told me on Friday the lineups they were going to roll out this weekend, I would’ve predicted a 4-0 loss and a 4-0 win. It’s the absences that are the most noteworthy, mainly Siphos Montsi. The All-American should be Illinois’ top returner, but he hasn’t played at all in 2022. He’s still on campus, so I’d guess he’s dealing with an injury, but that’s a guess at best. He probably wouldn’t have been the difference in the Ohio State match, but if he could’ve held his own a bit at one of the top spots, maybe it could’ve resulted in Illinois picking up a point somewhere. I don’t know. If Illinois wants to be remotely close to the program’s standard, Siphos needs to be on the court.
- The other absence was Kweisi Kenyatte. Again, I don’t think he would’ve been the difference, but as one of Illinois’ three ranked singles players, he could’ve put up a bit of a fight on one of the lower courts at least.
- The gap between Illinois and Ohio State is sizeable, so what can be done between now and the end of the season to close the gap? Well, first, get Siphs and Kweisi in the lineup. Second, get AB back to his All-American level he had his junior season. Was he there on Saturday? It’s difficult to say, but after dropping his first set, he had a 4-3 lead in the second on court 3. Third, let the uber-talented freshmen develop. Karlis Ozolins will sit out the year due to international red tape bureaucratic garbage, and William Mroz just got on campus. Guzauskas did play on Saturday, and similar to AB, he had a 4-3 lead in the second after dropping his first set to the No. 42 player in the country on court 5. Put Mroz and Guzauskas down on the lower courts for a while and let them cook. Long term, their ceilings are probably higher than Horve’s or Meister’s in singles play.
Will it be enough? Probably not. Ohio State is absolutely stacked, but this clearly wasn’t Illinois’ final form.
- I haven’t talked about the Chicago State match at all. This is partially due to not a whole lot happening in it and partially due to me spending my early evening looking for bald eagles at my county lake instead. One weird thing did happen though. If you eagle-eyed reader(s) waded through those summaries, you might’ve noticed that I didn’t mention how many points Meister’s opponent scored in the second set tiebreak. That’s because they didn’t really play the tiebreak. Zamorski apparently was overruled on four different out-of-bounds calls, the fourth coming on the first point of the tiebreak. The punishment for that is Meister being awarded a full game. Since this happened in the tiebreak, Meister automatically won the tiebreak with no points played according to the scoreboard, so he clinched the match with a 7-6 second set win. You can adjust your tennis Scorigami charts accordingly.
- I’ll mention a couple of positives before switching over to the women. First, Coach Dancer might’ve already found a doubles lineup. Horve/Heck are likely going to be ranked the next time the ITA rates the doubles partnerships after taking down the No. 3 duo in the nation at the MLK invite, and if AB/GG can give the No. 2 doubles team a run for their money, that ought to do the trick most dual matches. As players get back from injury or develop, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some musical chairs at 3 doubles, but those top two seem pretty solid so far, especially Horve/Heck.
- Second, we might have something in Olivier Stuart. The grad transfer from Mercer took Ohio State’s top player 11 points deep into a first-set tiebreak before the Buckeyes clinched elsewhere. It would’ve been nice for them to play through just to know for certain if Ollie could keep that level up for a whole match, but what are you gonna do? The good news is that we can’t rule out that he could go toe-to-toe with the best collegiate players out there. If this wasn’t a mirage and all that stuff I mentioned two bullet points ago comes to fruition, the likely rematch against the Buckeyes in the B1G Tournament could be very interesting.
- Ok, time to talk about the women now, and I have to gush about the freshmen for a while because they’re awesome. Now, they’re probably not All-American awesome, but they’re good foundational pieces that are so unique and so entertaining that it’s hard not to gush about them. I’ll go from the top of the current singles lineup and work my way down, starting with Megan Heuser. She is a capital-A Athlete. Like, she’s built, but it doesn’t come at a detriment to her footspeed. Physically, the gifts are there. It’s just a matter of perfecting the technique and the mental game.
- The other and much more pointless ongoing saga with Heuser is the pronunciation of “Heuser.” That first syllable could have any vowel sound, and so far, we have two attempts. The commentator on the Harvard stream sounded it out and went with a logical HYOO-zer. On Sunday, the PA announcer at Atkins was slightly more sophisticated and chose HIGH-zer. We will continue to track this with the hopes that someone breaks new ground with phonetics.
- The best way to get a scouting report on a tennis player is to watch them in person instead of by watching them on a stream. Unfortunately, I sat over the even courts on Sunday, which meant I didn’t see Kasia Treiber play much in person. I did see a bit of her on the stream on Saturday, and she was a freakin’ delight. Her balance between regular old flat or topspin groundstrokes and tricky slices and drop shots is wonderful. It makes for a good all-around game, and the goal will be to figure out how to adjust that balance to her opponent.
- Kida Ferrari rules so much that I’m going to spend three different paragraphs talking about three different aspects of her that are awesome. Her style of play is fascinating. She’s not overly athletic. Her speed and her power aren’t anything to write home about, and she doesn’t have that graceful coordination that makes it look like she flows across the court. She is ruthlessly efficient, however. Like, her groundstrokes have absolutely no wasted motion, but they still have some pop. This means she has the ability to put her opponent on their heels while saving a couple of milliseconds to get into position for the return. She’s basically finding the perfect racing line, hitting the apices and getting a good drive out of the corner to set up the next turn.
- The next point of the awesomeness of Kida Ferrari is her attitude. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen on a tennis court. Her response to her mistakes isn’t wild gesticulating or the normal tennis frustration coping techniques. It’s more sarcastic joking with herself. The perfect example of this is her hitting a fairly easy ball into the net on Sunday, pausing for a second, and then saying “ah, yeah, there’s a net there” with a slight smile on her face. Now, granted, she absolutely plastered everyone she faced over the weekend, so it remains to be seen if this sort of coping mechanism remains when the road gets a little bumpier. For now, it’s still rare to see this sort of attitude anywhere in the collegiate game, and it’s awesome.
- The final point is her name is the perfect setup for about a billion Formula One references in my articles and should be good fodder for Aces if their leader could get his act together*. Now, you may say that there’s not enough gas for me to keep my rate of jokes up for a full season, to which I’d say that her name isn’t Kida Aston Martin and this isn’t the Hungaroring.
*He may or may not be my younger brother.
- A quick disjointed bullet point about everyone else: Katie Duong steps to and attacks every ball, and that makes all the difference. Josie Frazier needed a few games before blowing the doors off her opponent on Thursday. This either means she’s good at adjusting or she’s a slow starter. Best I can tell there’s nothing new with Ashley Yeah: perfect technique, sometimes suboptimal results, but it didn’t matter much this weekend. Emily Casati was the only Illini to drop a set this weekend, but she was relatively cool under pressure when playing in front of a relatively hostile crowd against the EIU Panther from Danville. Shivani Ingle put on an absolute clinic in her first set against EIU. If the team has to dip into its depth, I won’t lose a whole lot of sleep if the lone senior has to fill a role.
- As for the big picture, it’s tough to make any sweeping generalizations about how good this team is. EIU and Chicago State are middling low majors, and Harvard is a middling mid major. Illinois should comfortably beat all three of these teams, even on a down year. We don’t know anything quite yet.
- The good news is that we’ll find out how good these teams are very soon. This weekend is the ITA Kickoff weekend, and both teams are hitting the road. The women play first against No. 18 Florida State in Tallahassee at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The men head to Oxford, Miss. to face NC State at 4 p.m. on the same day. There is a consolation match so both teams will be playing on Sunday as well.