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Illini Tennis set to begin postseason play

The women are ahead of schedule. The men want to forget this year.

Harry Figiel | Illini Athletics

The Illini tennis teams entered this season in a state of flux. Major contributors from both squads moved on, making expectations reset basically to their defaults. The men, after a run to the Sweet Sixteen and a B1G Tourney Title, weren’t likely to have a similarly magical season, but the program standard is to make the NCAA tournament and be in the mix at the top end of the B1G standings. The women probably weren’t going to have a tournament team, but their standard has been top half of the B1G.

Let’s start with the faceplant. The men’s record currently sits at 13-13. They have one top-25 win, which came at the tail end of the nonconference over then-#23, now-#15 North Carolina. They beat a Northwestern team that looks to be on the right side of the bubble from their perspective. They put a scare into then-and-still-#1 TCU before eventually losing 4-2. They went on the road and gutted out a 4-3 win over UCF in Orlando. Those are the only major bright spots from this year, and a couple of them were reaches, especially for a program of this quality.

That blemishes are so bad, y’all. They were swept by a Notre Dame team Illinois had beaten 9 times in a row, including a sweep in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year. They fell 4-3 to a Wisconsin team they hadn’t lost to since 2010. They were run off the court by rivals Ohio State and Michigan the 4 times they met. They lost to the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the first time in program history.

What went wrong? There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the most jarring has been the play of Alex Brown. The fifth-year senior garnered All-American honors his sophomore year and was named All-B1G his first three years of school. He didn’t have a good senior season, but after a good offseason, he looked primed to bring back his high quality of play. To put it mildly, that didn’t happen. He’s been stuck at the #4 spot in the singles lineup and hasn’t done much there. He has a 6-11 singles record, and on court 4, he’s 4-6. That’s…not great, especially for an All-American

Most of the rest of the singles lineup hasn’t been much better. Highly touted freshman Gabrielius Guzauskas hasn’t found his footing on his way to a 6-10 record towards the lower end of the lineup. Siphos Montsi had a late start to the season and hasn’t settled in, putting together a 6-8 record. Lucas Horve has been Up and down the singles lineup, everyone is putting up fairly mediocre numbers, which just isn’t going to cut it for Illini men’s tennis.

But four players don’t make up a whole team. A few things have been slightly better than expected but not necessarily something to write home about. Nic Meister has shown marked improvement and has carved himself a place in the lineup. An 8-8 record isn’t amazing, but I didn’t expect him to get regular playing time, so kudos to him. It might be a reach, but it feels relatively like a positive. Olivier Stuart had a hot start, fell into a midseason lull, and is finding his groove as of late, all of which adds up to an 8-7 record in dual play and a #58 ranking. It’s just a shame that he wasn’t around for a stronger team because he would be ideal for the #3 or #4 singles spot.

Doubles play might also be a positive, but it’s certainly an enigma. Illinois has won the doubles point about half the time which feels like an improvement over the past few years (I can’t confirm for sure because I can’t find past seasons’ stats). All three main pairings are ranked, which is either a good sign or just that the lineup has stayed relatively stable. Again, another reach to consider a positive, but it feels like a step in the right direction at least.

The one positive I’m certain about is Hunter Heck. The sophomore has been special this season, putting together a 17-4 record and taking control of the top singles spot in the lineup. He’s climbed up to #82 in the national rankings and is riding an 11-match winning streak into the postseason (there was one unfinished match in there where he was down a set but up a break against the #11 player in the country). In this stretch, he’s defeated the #30, #33, and #61 (at the time) singles players in the nation. All 11 of these wins have been in straight sets. The reason he’s so low in the rankings is likely due to a somewhat poor 1-2 start followed by 3 unfinished matches. I think there’s a case he should get an invite to the NCAA singles tournament, but who knows.

As for postseason prospects, there’s no way this team will get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They’re #54 in the ITA team rankings, which is about 20 spots below where they need to be to be on the bubble. They need to win the B1G Tournament, which would be an impressive thing for any 6-seed to do. The road definitely won’t be easy, starting with their Friday night matchup against the host Badgers, followed by a likely semi-final matchup with Michigan and a likely championship duel with Ohio State. They have to play the games, but considering they went 0-5 in their matches against these three teams, I don’t have much confidence.

Now for some positivity: The women’s team has been better than expected this season. They’ve been very responsible in compiling their 15-8 record, only having one baffling loss to a team that is below them in the rankings (at Penn State at 10AM on a Sunday who only has 4 indoor courts, so it was weird all around). An 8-3 conference record put them in a very respectable tie for third in the B1G.

So where did this come from? Sophomore Katie Duong has held down the #1 singles spot all year, putting together a solid 11-8 record. Freshmen Megan Heuser and Kasia Treiber have done the same at the 4 and 5 spots respectively with identical 13-6 records. The doubles play has also been pretty darn good, with the Illini winning the point 15 times out of 23.

If I had to put the spotlight on a player in particular though, it would have to be Ashley Yeah. The junior has made the leap and put together a 14-5 record at the #2 singles spot. You might ask, shouldn’t she deserve a look at the top singles spot with a resume like that? Well, probably not, for reasons I’ll get into but the fact you are asking the question (or the fact I’m typing out the question) deserves some praise. She has always had the best fundamentals during her time at Illinois, but now she has put the mental game together enough to turn those fundamentals into wins. Now, she still has some room for improvement, seeing as her matches can get a bit rollercoaster-y at times. If she takes that next step and consistently dominates her matches on court 2, then we might just have a conversation about her getting the top singles spot.

Only two spots in the lineup have gotten mediocre results: the #3 and #6 singles. We’ll start at the top and work our way down. Josie Frazier has put together a 7-9 spot at #3 singles, which isn’t great. I’m not sure what kind of diagnosis I can make with complete certainty. My guess is that her opponent either solves her or they don’t. Despite not exactly being a speedster, Frazier likes to grind out points and play extremely slow, relying on her length. If she’s able to play in that style, she is going to win easily. If not, she’s getting run off the court. My extremely scientific evidence for this is that she’s only had two normal sets that required someone to win a seventh game/tiebreak. As for her teammates who have seen regular time, Katie’s had 8, Megan 11, Kasia 5, and Ashley 12

The sixth spot has been a bit of a revolving door. It looked like it was freshman Kida Ferrari’s to lose, but she might’ve run over some debris, gotten touched by somebody’s front wing, or clipped an Armco barrier. Whatever happened, she blew a tire/injured her foot and has spent the second half of the season on the sideline, finishing with a 5-5 singles record. Coach Evan Clark shuffled Emily Casati and Shivani Ingle in as stopgaps, but neither has been particularly effective, with the veterans compiling 1-4 and 5-3 singles records respectively. Weeding out results on other courts, these three have combined for an 8-11 record on court six. I’m comfortable writing this off as inconsistency and lack of experience until there’s any sort of pattern developing.

(side note: these three have combined for seven sets that have required someone to win a seventh game/tiebreak)

(second side note: I want to lump some blame on Kida for the strange Penn State loss because she either celebrated Leclerc’s dominance in the Australian GP in the wee hours of the morning too much (and keeping her teammates up or using up her allotment of karma for the weekend) or too little (and thus not taking the necessary steps to keeping the karma going into the match a few hours later). Either way she was put in an impossible situation, so a good portion of blame must be placed on the FIA for not taking into consideration B1G women’s tennis before scheduling their Grands Prix)

All this being said, the team has some real opportunity in the postseason. The tiebreakers didn’t fall their way, so they ended up with the #5 seed in the B1G tournament. Iowa won their 12/13 matchup over Michigan State, so the Illini will face the host Hawkeyes in Iowa City to start things out. The winner gets #4 Wisconsin, and the winner of that will likely face #1 Ohio State. Now, Illinois currently sits at #46 in the national rankings. If they can somehow get to a semi-final match against the #10 Buckeyes and pull off the miracle, Illinois might be in with a shout of getting an at-large bid to the NCAAs.

The women start their Big Ten Tournament campaign at 6 p.m. Thursday. The men start at 6 p.m. Friday. Coverage and livestreams for the women’s tournament can be found on Big Ten Plus, while the men’s tournament will be streamed here on the Wisconsin Badgers website.