The Illini open the season this weekend in Sarasota, Fla.
Jan. 10, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Sixth-year head coach Brad Dancer returns nearly his entire squad from a year ago that secured the program's 15th straight NCAA Championship and Big Ten Tournament title match appearance and 13th consecutive 20-win season. The Illini are ranked 16th in the Campbell/Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) team rankings to open the season, where they also finished in the final 2010 rankings after advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"This team competed with tremendous resiliency last year, so the No. 1 aspect we want this year is to maintain and improve upon that toughness," Dancer said. "This should prove to be an exciting and challenging year. We have a core group of guys that have some experience on both the collegiate and professional summer circuits, so how they transcend that competing in the dual match environment will be paramount to our success."
Despite the loss of All-Big Ten selection Marek Czerwinski, the Illini return five of six lineup mainstays including fellow All-Big Ten honoree junior Dennis Nevolo and senior Abe Souza, who tallied a team- and career-best 35 singles wins last season. After a solid fall season, the duo was recognized in the first individual rankings of 2011, as Nevolo garnered his highest ranking yet, checking in at No. 11 after going 13-4 for the fall with five wins over nationally ranked opponents, while Souza came in at No. 121. In doubles, Nevolo and Souza were ranked 20th.
"Dennis is beginning to demonstrate leadership for this team," Dancer said. "His self-discipline has improved and this will increase his confidence in the crucial aspects of matches. We are tinkering with a few technical issues and once he has better command of those aspects, we are going to encourage an increase in his offensive arsenal: more transition play, more free points off the serve and better utilization of his skills in an attacking manner. With his fitness being at an all-time high, there shouldn't be any game style he isn't comfortable playing against.
"Abe's growth as a person and tennis player has been awesome to be a part of," Dancer said. "He challenges himself on a daily basis to get better. There are a lot of guys that can do that, but then don't show up on game day. Abe rises to the challenge of competition, so he has become that unique breed of someone who is a manic about improving, yet relishes the spirit of competition."
Seniors Johnny Hamui and Connor Roth also return for the Illini after seeing significant playing time last season. Hamui, who transferred from the University of Florida prior to the start of the spring season, tallied 15 wins playing primarily at No. 4 singles in 2010 and is ranked at No. 111 in the first national singles rankings.
"It was definitely a difficult transition for Johnny to come in mid-year with the school change and make the immediate transition to indoor play," Dancer said. "What we saw down the stretch of the season and throughout the summer and fall is someone that is coming into his own as a competitor. Johnny is beginning to see areas in his game improve dramatically, which is giving him the confidence to play a more aggressive, assertive style. This in turn opens up his already strong skill set where we think he can compete with anyone in college tennis."
Roth finished his junior season with career-best win totals in both singles (20) and doubles (17), as well as Big Ten matches (4).
"Connor came back and won many big matches for this team last season, so we felt he could use that success to catapult his play through the fall," Dancer said. "While we didn't see that jump in performance, the work he's put in over the past two years is still yet to fully shine through. If he can relax, play within himself and use his physicality on court, then he can have his best year ever as an Illini."
Rounding out the roster is sophomores Bruno Abdelnour, Stephen Hoh and KU Singh and redshirt freshman Brian Alden, who will each look to make substantial contributions in their second season at Illinois.
"The sophomore class will likely play the biggest role in our potential success this year," Dancer said. "Bruno and Stephen should both have shaken off the freshman jitters and be more comfortable in the unpredictability of dual match play. KU will have to adapt quickly to the differences, but should add depth to our lineup immediately. Brian redshirted last season and continues to grow stronger physically. We definitely see him having an opportunity to contribute immediately in doubles and as his weapons improve, also on the singles court."
Hoh led all newcomers with 18 singles and 14 doubles wins overall, including five in Big Ten matches, and has already tallied a combined 13 wins this past fall in tournament play.
"Stephen has gone through more changes in the past 12 months than any other player on our team and most of that didn't start until last summer," Dancer said. "His game is a work in progress and we feel he possesses enough weapons to play a commanding and punishing style. This transformation will take time as he looks to see exactly when and how to use some of those weapons and also how best to set them up. Stephen has a great temperament for playing big matches, but needs to be more assertive earlier in matches to take more control when possible."
Abdelnour saw action in the latter half of the season and collected nine wins in 13 matches, including four against Big Ten opponents, and also recorded six victories in doubles.
"Bruno continues to be right at the top of the team in terms of work ethic and commitment," Dancer said. "He is gaining confidence in his serve after making multiple adjustments and that should pay huge dividends for him as he looks to play more assertively. Bruno is a very good ball striker that can become more adept at some of the nuances of facing different styles of competition. This will come with playing matches, which we feel we are seeing as he begins to read plays better, which will translate into him playing with more freedom and making adjustments on the court as he reads the plays."
Alden made his collegiate debut this fall, posting three singles wins and four in doubles and will look to become a consistent competitor this spring for the Illini.
"The coaching staff saw some maturation kick in toward the end of the fall for Brian," Dancer said. "He showed better commitment to his strength gains and began to pay closer attention to his film technique. Those areas are key for him. Brian brings a tremendous amount of passion to his competition and we will continue to encourage his aggressive attitude. The focal points with Brian are going to be refining his technical skill set, while helping him find that competitive balance where he can channel all of his energy into mental focus."
Singh, who was forced to sit out all of last season and this past fall in accordance with NCAA rules, has kept busy competing in outside tournaments around the country, most recently winning the Car-X Men's Open Tennis Tournament held at Atkins Tennis Center in early December.
"KU's serve continues to improve and we really feel this is going to be a critical part of his success for the upcoming season," Dancer said. "KU possesses excellent court sense, which should allow him to be a problem solver on the court this year. I expect him to be able to come back against any competition he faces, but we will encourage him to be more confident in imposing his game on to opponents."
The squad will host the Illini Open in Sarasota, Fla., Jan. 13-15 to start the spring season, before beginning a grueling dual schedule in which five of their first seven matches will be against opponents ranked inside the top 15, including at No. 1 Virginia (1/21) and home matches versus No. 3 Tennessee (2/5), No. 9 Florida (2/12), No. 12 Kentucky (2/11) and No. 14 Duke (2/4).
"We always face a tough schedule, especially right off the bat, but this season it should be just incredible," Dancer said. "Our usual opponents are either stacked or have reloaded with young talent. We get many of these matches at home and our fans can make a huge difference."
Nine Big Ten schools will open the season ranked in the top 75, with four inside the top 30, including No. 4 Ohio State, No. 16 Illinois, No. 25 Michigan and No. 29 Wisconsin. Five conference schools, including Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin, made NCAA appearances last season, while the Buckeyes claimed their fifth straight Big Ten regular season and tournament title.
The Big Ten Tournament will take place April 28-May 1 on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, while the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament will get underway May 13-14, followed by the NCAA Championships in Stanford, Calif., May 19-30 at the Taube Tennis Center.
"I am excited for our seniors as I think this team is confident in what they can accomplish, but they know it's going to take a great effort from everyone," Dancer said. "For this team to have success, everybody is going to have to contribute on the court so the pressure of the matches will go to all eight guys. The best part about that is in theory, it should make our practices very competitive where everybody is focused on their immediate preparations."