Vukic seeks memorable finish to time with Illini

Vukic seeks memorable finish to time with Illini

URBANA — Aleks Vukic already holds a place among Illinois tennis' best.

His 45 singles wins as a freshman stand as the best in a single season in program history. Only Pramod Dabir put together a longer singles winning streak at 24 victories in a row than Vukic's 21 in the 2016-17 season.

And Vukic currently sits tied for 10th all time with Mike Kosta in career singles wins with his Illini career not yet finished and opportunities coming to add to his 107 victories.

Like this weekend.

Vukic's first chance to pad his win total will come at 3 p.m. today when No. 8 overall seed Illinois hosts Marquette in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. It's another opportunity for Vukic to add to what's been a career of mostly highs for the senior from Australia.

Mostly highs.

Injuries have bothered Vukic throughout his career. Wrist issues as a sophomore and junior. Then knee and ankle injuries this season, as he's played his fewest number of matches in his Illinois career.

"I've had a lot of injuries that have set me back," Vukic said. "I took the fall off in my sophomore year and came back and fractured my wrist. I had a lot of ups, but also a lot of downs.

"That's just part of being an athlete. It's the thrill of when you get up knowing you have been so low that it makes it even more worth it."

Vukic persevered through those physical roadblocks to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his final three seasons in addition to ITA All-American recognition in 2016 and 2017. His senior season added some mental roadblocks to the equation.

"I think the psychology of this year, it was really hard on him to make that decision to come back to school and get his degree versus turning pro," Illinois coach Brad Dancer said. "I think he had a lot of momentum at different times in the last 18 months to turn pro. ... I think the beginning of this year was tough, and he never made it all the way out of the woods from that. Now, it's funny. You see him, and it's night and day when he finished his last final the other day."

Vukic will also graduate this weekend with a finance degree — one he earned while maintaining a 3.5 GPA. He accounted for several factors in his decision to return to Illinois, and that was certainly one of them.

"Honestly, it was kind of a no-brainer to come back for my final six months even after Sydney (where he went 3-2 in a pair of tournaments in January) because I was going to finish my degree," Vukic said. "I wanted to go out of here with a finance degree in my back pocket, and I've managed to do that somehow with everything. That's honestly the main reason.

"Plus, I wanted to give our team another shot to do well. I really wanted the team to do well this season — maybe more than usual — and I feel like we've got one more chance to prove our worth."

Vukic's academic load this semester was almost heavier than on the tennis court. He took three 400-level finance classes and a fourth 300-level class. That cut into the amount of extra practice time he could put in, which Dancer said he's gotten back to in the last 48 hours.

"These last days have been so much fun," Vukic said. "I feel so much more relaxed and so much more focused on my tennis. I can't wait to keep playing like this without the additional stress of finance in the back of my head."

The ability to focus solely on tennis has allowed Vukic to start thinking about the start of his full-time professional career. After, of course, Illinois puts together an NCAA tournament run. That's why he's not looking for any tournaments until June, like, for example, the Poznan Open on the ATP Challenger Tour in Poznan, Poland, starting June 4.

"Jump right in, waste no time and see where it takes me," he said. "I've gotten tastes of (professional tennis) and been so happy with where I was at. The different levels in tennis, the higher you get up is exponentially a lot cooler. It's a cool life once you get to the top, and I want to have it. I want to have that lifestyle of traveling all over the world and playing tennis. It's awesome."

Returning to Illinois for his senior season and earning his finance degree simply set Vukic up for life after tennis.

"He recognized having that finance degree would be important for him, and I think he saw it a little bit as a challenge to himself," Dancer said. "Can I really do this? Can I try and attain professional tennis and get this degree? It's been tough."

Vukic's priority now, though, is an NCAA title for Illinois. Opening the NCAA tournament at home — with the temperature expected in the mid-80s this weekend — sets him up for some potential early round success.

"He plays on this court above 80 degrees and the ball is bouncing and it's got heat in the ball," Dancer said. "It's conditions he just loves. He eats up those conditions. It's supposed to be 85 on Saturday and 86 on Sunday, and he's got a big smile on his face."

Vukic does, in fact, light up thinking about playing on a warm afternoon at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.

"The hotter the better for me," he said. "I've always played well on these courts and — knock on wood — haven't lost too many matches out here. These courts seem to suit me quite well."

Well enough, certainly, to put together one of the best tennis careers in program history.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis