32-0! FIGHTING ILLINI ARE KINGS OF COLLEGE TENNIS
May 20, 2003
ATHENS, Ga. - The 2002-03 University of Illinois men's tennis team can now officially stake a claim as one of the top squads in the history of the sport at the collegiate level.
Illinois (32-0) becomes the first team other than UCLA, Stanford, Southern California or Georgia to win an NCAA team tennis title since 1977, when the team dual match format was adopted to determine the national champion.
The crowning moment in the history of Fighting Illini tennis could hardly have come in more spectacular, dramatic fashion. Sophomore Chris Martin, who had to battle hard with Ryler DeHeart for a spot in the starting lineup early in the dual-match season, proved he belonged there as he defeated the Commodores' Lewis Smith, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, in the deciding No. 6 singles match. His triumph set off a wild but tasteful celebration by all at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex who were wearing Orange and Blue, the likes of which the UI tennis program has never seen.
The match started smoothly for the Illini, as No. 9 Brian Wilson and Rajeev Ram easily handled Chad Harris and Matt Lockin in the No. 2 doubles match, but trouble was brewing on Courts 1 and 3. Five minutes later, it was all too apparent that today's duel would be a knock-down, drag-out affair. Vanderbilt's Bobby Reynolds and Scott Brown put the finishing touches on their impressive 8-5 victory over 11th-ranked Michael Calkins and Amer Delic, and the momentum started to swing the Commodores' way. Meanwhile, down on Court 3, Stolt and Martin saw a 3-0 lead evaporate and turn into an 8-5 loss, largely due to a string of five consecutive points by VU.
With the doubles point in its pocket, Vanderbilt's confidence as a team grew. Aside from Ram's swift demolition (6-3, 6-4) of Lockin, the situation became more and more critical for the Orange and Blue as time went on. Reynolds showed the third-ranked Delic why he is the top-ranked singles player in the country, dropping the first set, 7-6, but coming back strong with 6-4 and 6-1 wins in the subsequent sets to give his team a 2-1 advantage.
Then, in the No. 2 match, the 16th-ranked Harris overcame a 6-2 loss to the No. 12 Wilson in the opening set, and took advantage of a big break to tighten the screws on the Illini. The UI junior was trailing, 3-1, in the second set, when a hard return by Harris glanced off Wilson's racket and hit him hard in the eye. Wilson was down on the court for several minutes, but elected to continue playing, despite having sustained a probable scratched cornea. The injury and resulting blurred vision that continued to plague Wilson served to minimize his effectiveness during the balance of the second set, which went to Harris, 6-1. Wilson's grit and determination propelled him to a close, 7-5 loss in the third set, but the damage had been done.
Illinois, which had not surrendered more than two team points in a dual match all season, found itself behind and on the brink of defeat, 3-1, with only the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 matches remaining. With their backs firmly planted against the wall, Illinois' depth showed itself even more than it already had all season. Only a minute or two after Delic's loss, Calkins dug deep to complete a 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 win over Dailey in the No. 5 contest. That put the Illini in within striking distance, but still, there was no room for error.
Phil Stolt, who had struggled the day before in the Stanford match and was nearly pulled from the lineup just prior to the start of singles, set the stage for Martin's heroics with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 nailbiter against Vandy's Brown.
With the score tied at 3, all of the attention turned to Court 6, where action was in the third set. Martin broke Smith's serve in Game 5 of that set to put himself in position for the clincher, but the move from 5-4 to 6-4 on the towering Henry Feild Stadium scoreboard proved to be excruciating. The Tulsa, Okla., native, serving for Illinois' first NCAA team championship, fell behind, love-40, but incredibly fought back to deuce. Martin survived one ad-Vanderbilt situation and failed in one triple match-point situation, so some spectators might have wondered if this match would go on all night. Finally, with only the birds' chirping to be heard, Martin ended the nearly silent suspense with a shot to the far-left corner that hit the baseline. Smith called it out, but the official overruled the call and the Illini were NCAA champions.
It was all over but the shouting.
2003 NCAA DIVISION I MEN'S TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIP TOURNAMENT FINAL
DOUBLES 1 Bobby Reynolds/Scott Brown (VAN) def. No. 11 Amer Delic/Michael Calkins (ILL) 8-5 2 No. 9 Brian Wilson/Rajeev Ram (ILL) def. Chad Harris/Matt Lockin (VAN) 8-2 3 Zach Dailey/Lewis Smith (VAN) def. Phil Stolt/Chris Martin (ILL) 8-5