URBANA — After particularly big points, Melissa Kopinski couldn’t contain her excitement. There were fist pumps. There were triumphant shouts as she turned to acknowledge the cheers of Illinois tennis fans.
Michelle Dasso is a big fan, too. Of Kopinski’s unbridled exuberance, that is.
“That’s great to see because that’s something we’ve talked about in the past and tried to stay on her is (to) show that fire,” the Illini women’s coach said. “She loves the game of tennis and we want her to show that spirit a little bit more on the court, and she certainly did that today.”
Kopinski was spirited to the end Thursday afternoon, combining with teammate Rachael White to pull out a second-set tiebreaker and defeat the South Carolina duo of Jaklin Alawi and Dominika Kanakova, 6-0, 7-6(5) in the first round of the NCAA Championships doubles bracket.
“I think we stepped up at key points and that’s what won us the match,” White said.
It was virtually two different matches, with Illinois dominating the first set and South Carolina recovering to force the second set into tennis’ version of overtime.
“Certainly day and night,” Dasso said of the two sets. “But I’ll tell you what, when the pressure was on our girls responded.”
The 22nd-ranked Illini tandem was never under more pressure than early in the tiebreaker, when South Carolina built a 3-1 lead. But Illinois responded by winning the next three points. From there, it was a tug of war with the 29th-ranked Gamecocks duo before the Illini broke a 5-5 tie with two straight points to end it.
Along the way during the tiebreaker, Kopinski and White kept Illini fans on the edge of their chairback seats at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.
“We came up with some ... nerve-racking second serves, but we made them,” a relieved Dasso said.
The UI coach applauded her doubles team for making South Carolina earn its points and not giving any away.
“I think what we did well at the end was made them play,” Dasso said. “We made our returns, and we stuck our volleys. So we made them play one more ball each time. Even in that breaker we dug out some balls and just found a way to make them play one more ball.”
Now, sophomore Kopinski and senior White will play at least one more match.
With the win, they advanced to a round of 16 match against the ninth-ranked duo of Hermon Brhane and Whitney Ritchie of Oklahoma.
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Jared Hiltzik gladly would have canceled his flight to Florida on Sunday.
Instead, the Illini freshman will board a plane as scheduled to compete next week in a USTA Futures event.
“Just gonna start trying to rack up some ATP points and start to get that kicking,” Hiltzik said.
He didn’t sound particularly excited about the prospect, but that was understandable. About 20 minutes earlier, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year had been unceremoniously ousted from the NCAA singles bracket in the second round 6-0, 6-1 by eighth-seeded Henrique Cunha of Duke.
“It was a big opportunity for me, and I kind of blew it,” the 32nd-ranked Hiltzik said. “But that’s all on me.”
The ninth-ranked Cunha was in control for most of the match. Trailing 4-1 in the second set, Hiltzik made a strong bid to break serve, but the Blue Devils senior answered the challenge and won the point.
“I just felt like I couldn’t do anything to hurt him unless I hit an amazing shot, and he just countered every single shot that I had,” Hiltzik said.
Cunha, a two-time ACC Player of the Year, was playing in the NCAA singles round of 32 for the fourth straight year. For college rookie Hiltzik, any NCAA Championships round is uncharted territory.
“He certainly appeared to be a little bit uptight, and against a player of Cunha’s stature and experience, that was not the recipe he needed out there,” Illini coach Brad Dancer said. Now, while the NCAA tournament winds toward its conclusion Monday, Hiltzik will head to Innisbrook, Fla., and look for victories there.
“This was a tough, tough match and a tough way to go down,” Dancer said. “He’s had a great freshman season and so you don’t really want to go down taking a bad beating at the end of it.
“But at the same time, you always need something to drive you forward and motivate you, and I’m sure this will with him.”
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Illinois’ Ross Guignon and Tim Kopinski had a tough draw for their first-round doubles match.
But the 16th-ranked Illini, who faced fourth-ranked Jarmere Jenkins and Mac Styslinger of Virginia, knew they had a chance to pull the upset — they’d already beaten the same duo this season.
The Illini scratched and clawed but came away with a 6-3, 6-7(10), 6-3 loss.
“It’s never a good feeling to lose, but there’s a standard we want to play at, and, for the most part, we met that standard tonight,” Guignon said.
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At one point Thursday, the tournament fell about two hours behind schedule. The culprit? Steady drizzle that halted play at 10:20 a.m.
Less than a half-hour later, the NCAA tennis committee decided to move matches indoors onto the six courts at Atkins Tennis Center.
“Knowing that we have 64 matches (scheduled) today, the committee felt it was imperative to get indoors,” said NCAA assistant director of championships Mary Berdo. “At least get in what we could with the hopes that it would stop drizzling, no more rain, and we could get back out there on the courts.”
The rain did let up, and by 1:20 p.m., outdoor matches resumed. In order to make up for lost time on one of the busiest days of the tournament, some of the outdoor courts immediately west of Atkins were used for matches. Under regular circumstances, those courts would only be utilized in this tournament for practice.
Although the afternoon remained largely overcast, the rain did not return and major ground was made up on the schedule. By 6:30, only one of the day’s 64 matches had yet to start.