Rowe, Illini stringing together NCAA runs
Aug. 13, 2007
The Big Ten Network is set to launch on Aug. 30, providing fans of its 11 schools conference programming 24 hours a day/seven days per week. In addition to expanding coverage of football and basketball, Illini fans will get a chance to see some of the stars of Olympic sports that are making headlines. This is the fourth in a series of profiles on athletes you have likely read about, but perhaps never had a chance to see their talents.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill.-- At Illinois, the month of May has grown to mean anticipating another run for men's tennis in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini won nine straight Big Ten titles from 1997-2005. Over the past nine seasons, Illinois has reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen eight times, the Final Four three times, the championship match twice, including a national title victory over Vanderbilt in 2003.
"The perception of our program has been great over the past decade," head coach Brad Dancer said. "Craig (Tiley) built the program into a national title contender. I have just tried to keep building on that."
Illinois made a magical run through the NCAA Tournament in 2007, advancing all the way to the championship match. Three of the final four victories toward the title match came after the Illini lost the doubles point and the other, a 4-3 victory over No. 3 Baylor in the semifinals, included a dramatic victory by Ryan Rowe at No. 2 singles.
In fact, the Illini trailed the match 3-2 and needed victories by both Rowe and Marc Spicijaric at No. 3 singles. After Spicijaric defeated the Bears' Matt Brown in the third set tiebreaker, 8-6, it was up to Rowe to pull off the same. Rowe, who won the second set tiebreaker 11-9, downed his opponent, Michal Kokta 6-2 in the third and deciding set. Rowe also was the decider in a second-round victory over Michigan.
"Ryan was huge for us in the tournament," said Dancer. "He has grown into a gifted athlete. In many ways, the ability to endure has been his biggest asset."
Not only has Illinois done well as a team, but the Illini also have thrived individually. In 2006, Rowe teamed with Kevin Anderson to capture the school's third NCAA doubles title in seven years. The duo was looking to repeat that feat in '07, advancing to the championship match before coming up just short. Other titlists have included Graydon Oliver and Cary Franklin (2000) and Brian Wilson and Rajeev Ram (2003). In fact, the 2003 season saw Illinois capture the NCAA Triple Crown, winning the team, singles and doubles titles - with Amer Delic posting a straight-sets victory in the singles finale.
The Rowe-Anderson tandem is strong, Dancer says, in part because of the righty-lefty combination with Rowe being the southpaw of the duo. The fact that Anderson and Rowe are 6-7 and 6-5, respectively, adds to the ground that they can cover as well.
"Ryan has great instincts," Dancer added. "He does a great job of controlling the tempo. His meticulous approach to the game has enabled him to play one point at a time and come through with pressure shots when it matters most."
Illinois was an underdog in every match at the Finals in Athens. A string of injuries culminating in an eye-opening 7-0 loss to Ohio State meant the Illini entered the tournament as just a No. 10 seed. "We started to build momentum late in the season," recalled Rowe. "No one expected us to make this kind of a run, but our effort and physical training helped us to be mentally ready."
After knocking off No. 7 Ole Miss in the Round of 16, the Illini got another crack at the national No. 2 seed Buckeyes in the quarterfinals. With Illinois leading 3-2, Rowe and Spicijaric still remained on the court. Rowe won a thrilling tiebreak to force a third and final set, while Spicijaric overcame a one-set deficit to win the clincher 6-7, 7-5, 6-1, giving Illinois a 4-2 victory. Even though Rowe's match never finished, the fact the he remained on the court, gave Spicijaric a boost. "We kept feeding off each other and fired each other up throughout our matches," Rowe recalls.
Over the past decade, Illinois' reputation has continued to grow. The Atkins Tennis Center is one of the best in the nation and the promise of expansion with Khan Stadium in the near future will give Illinois a chance to hold future NCAA Championships. The fans base, headlined by the student support group, the Net Nuts, has risen exponentially, and the Illini have a reputation of producing top-level players.
"Kevin didn't even make are line-up at first," Rowe noted. "The program has all the tools from weight training to coaching to people support that makes players better in their years at Illinois."
Anderson, who has developed into Illinois' No. 1 player, was ranked No. 4 in the nation at the end of last season. Both men have been successfully playing Challengers and Futures events this summer and both hope to one day join the list of Illini playing professionally. That list of players is highlighted by Delic, who just this year cracked the world's top 75 and has been an automatic qualifier in every Grand Slam this season.
The run through the NCAA tournament in 2007 and the players coming back will make Illinois a favorite to a make another run at the school's second national title. "Last year we really grew as a team," Rowe said. "It inspired everyone to develop their game during the off-season. We're certainly excited about our chances in `08."