Most of the time, like the rest of tennis twitter, I am obsessed with watching and commenting on pro-sports. But there’s another side of my life where I get to see great live tennis on the regular, because I live in a town with a university that supports two outstanding Big Ten tennis teams. The year, both the men’s and the women’s made it to the NCAA tournament. The women got through the first round but fell in the second down in Lubbock. But the men are often seeded high enough that they play early rounds in what is almost literally my own back yard. Ok, it is actually .9 miles from my house. I watched them take out Marquette today. And I’ll be there tomorrow to see them take on preppy Vanderbilt.
So what, you may well ask, what does watching college tennis give you that you don’t get from watching the pros?
A lot. I get to see these players develop over four years. I get to see them practice when they’re not playing. I get to see the team gel, work together, and support each other–a sight you rarely get in pro tennis unless you’re watching Davis Cup. I get to see on-court coaching. I get to see their parents put on brave faces when things are not going well, (or stifle celebration for the sake of staying positive for opposing parents, also present). I see them walking to class with their backpacks in the few hours they are not on court, because they have to juggle being students. In short, I get to see how so many American players these days are made.
As you know, we’re not in a particularly inspiring moment right now in American men’s pro tennis, so amuse me, for a minute, while I sing the praises of the current roster of the University of Illinois men’s team, which exhibits so many of the qualities we in tennis twitter land are currently searching for and not finding when we go to the tournaments and have to stare at Isner, or Harrison, or Sock. I think these college students deserve the kind of profiles that the pros get, so here I go (all photo credits to @IlliniMTennis):
Aleks Vukic, Senior, Current ATP ranking: 444
This guy had to bolt from the stage with diploma in hand to make it to his NCAA match. This will be the last time I see Vukic play as an Illini, because win or lose, the NCAA tournament moves on somewhere else to the Round of 16. Vukic is from Australia but chose to come to Illinois for both its current strengths and its illustrious history. You *will see him on the pro circuit, so pay attention starting now. He’s one of the hardest working players I know, constantly working on his serve, even when other members of the team aren’t around. As an homage to his Australian roots, the team cheers him on with the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy Oy Oy!” yell, though we’re not really sure he likes it. Goes by “Vuk.” This is a photo from last year’s NCAA, and if you look super carefully, you’ll see BadToss with BadToss Jr.
Aron Hiltzik, Senior
Aron is one of the many Chicago based players who stayed in-state to play for their home team. And that’s what I love about this team. It really is a slice of Illinois. There are very few players from out-of-country, and those that are, are generally in keeping with the ethnic tone of Chicago and Illinois (like Vukic, whose family is Croatian, and could just as easily have wound up in Illinois). So Aron is one of the many “ic” and “ik” suffixed players who represent our state’s diversity. He followed his brother Jared here and played on the same team with him for two years. So Mama Hiltzik, visible in the background, as well as Papa Hiltzik have been more or less a fixture for six years running now and will be sorely missed.
Zeke Clark, Sophomore
There’s always that guy who holds a team together, and you know who that one is by their sophomore year; they have irrepressible spirit, and a ruptured vocal chord from cheering on their teammates. On this roster, that guy is Zeke Clark, who has been granted the Spirit Award, the Strength and Conditioning Award, AND the Most Improved Player Award by his team. He’s a crowd favorite. From Tulsa, Oklahoma, he’s everything good about the heartland. A little guy at 5’6″, he was ranked third as a junior. He’ll be making waves.
Alex Kovacevic, Sophomore
Just call him “The Clinchah.” This kid clinches the match more times than any other. Mentally tough, he has no problem taking the team’s win or loss on his shoulders, delivering with great variety and clutch serving. And his Mom is adorable. After a bad call I thought she was going to run down to the court and rip the ref’s head off herself. Another first-generation player, Aleks was born in New York City, but joins the ic and ik vibe of this roster. Often I’m watching his court because he’ll make great stuff happen.
Alex Brown, Freshman
Because we don’t have enough guys named Aleks/x. Big “A.B.” is 6’5″, with a great serve which has earned him First-Team All-Big-Ten honors this year. He’s from Iowa, so another Midwest dweller like Zeke. I’m thinking he’ll only be getting more powerful in the years ahead, adding even more strength to balance out his frame. Even given his size, he’s an incredible mover on court. There’s nothing serve-bot about his game.
Caleb Chakravarthi, Freshman
As a freshman recruited from Irvine, CA, Caleb is already holding down the number six singles spot with a winning average. He has incredible reflexes at net–almost cat-like. I’m looking forward to seeing him play a lot more. Side note: when the whole team got super-sick after eating at the same restaurant, Caleb recovered the quickest. You want a guy with an iron gut on your team.
The Illinois team is seeded eighth in the NCAA tournament this year, so recapturing the 2003 glory of winning the title is a stretch. But I love my team and look forward to cheering them on year upon year. I see in them what I hope to see more of in American tennis on the pro-level: A little diversity. A little bit of variety. A commitment to fighting for something bigger than themselves. Not all college tennis teams are like this. I looked at the roster of Drake University (located in Iowa) and saw that every player on their team came from the United Kingdom. I watched the Vanderbilt boys in their polo shirts with gold stitching and their bleached-blonde emo haircuts and wanted to barf. I hope my scrappy, “ic and ik” public school team hits the felt off the ball tomorrow against them and goes further than second round, but if they don’t, I’ll still be thankful that I get to watch a version of American tennis I can cheer for.