Clark advances to quarterfinals at Illini Open

Clark advances to quarterfinals at Illini Open

URBANA — The 2018-19 Illinois men's tennis season isn't getting underway this week, despite what the flurry of action at Atkins Tennis Center might suggest.

Instead, the facility is hosting an International Tennis Federation Futures event that began Tuesday. But this Fighting Illini Open is just as important to Illinois coach Brad Dancer as anything his crew achieves at the NCAA level.

"We look at it not so much about how it affects the college season," Dancer said prior to the first round of singles and doubles main draw action. "It's more about the transition into the pro ranks. Doing well at these tournaments is going to be quite advantageous for where you're setting yourself up for the future."

Six men with Illini ties on Tuesday started vying for the top spot in their respective brackets, with varying levels of success.

Rising junior Zeke Clark is the lone tie to the Illini still playing today, as he mowed through two rounds of singles action. He took down Tristan Boyer in Wednesday's second round and will face reigning NCAA singles champion Petros Chrysochos, a Wake Forest rising senior, in today's quarterfinals.

Illinois sophomore Alex Brown took one singles match in the tournament, and the pairings of Brown/Illinois sophomore Caleb Chakravarthi and Clark/Santiago Fa Rodriguez Taverna each surpassed the opening round of doubles action.

Former Illini Aron Hiltzik was ousted in the first day of singles play, as were the doubles duos of former Illini Tim Koplinski/current Illini Aleks Kovacevic and Hiltzik/Govind Nanda.

They're all following in the footsteps of 2018 graduate Aleks Vukic, who captured the singles crown at last year's version of the showcase.

"It goes to show why we push so hard for these types of events," Dancer said. "We want to create opportunities for our guys. It's a really big deal for us."

Vukic presently is rated 397th among all male singles competitors on the ATP World Tour. That's actually an important point, and ties back into why Dancer is glad to see a Futures contest in Champaign-Urbana.

According to Dancer, roughly 150 male professional tennis players presently make "real good income."

The ATP is attempting to adjust its lower levels — with Futures tournaments part of that area — to allow hundreds more to comfortably play tennis for a living.

In line with that, Dancer said the ATP is going to alter its ranking system in the near future to include only the top 400 athletes, versus the roughly 2,200 associated now. As such, results in events like the Illini Open are critical to up-and-coming stars.

"They're really streamlining the process (by) cutting out the number of opportunities and changing draw sizes," Dancer said. "The idea is, it's going to be tougher to get in at the bottom levels of pro tennis. Then once you make it, you're making good income each week and have your expenses paid for."

There is $25,000 in prize money attached to this week's activities, and Illinois will host a November tournament that boasts $50,000 in awards.

Even more crucial than an oversized check — like the one Vukic received at his home venue in 2017 — are the ATP-related benefits that come from a strong showing on the Futures tour.

"The points are going to transfer over to 2019, so this is the year where everybody's panicking a little bit," Dancer said. "They're looking at the rankings every week to see how they'll shake out. It's going to be really, really difficult for guys not in the semis or finals of these events to have a ranking."

So that's what hangs in the balance for the current and former Illini involved in this week's festivities. There's pressure that goes well beyond the boundaries of college sports.

Luckily, the men used to donning orange and blue have a built-in advantage this week.

"For our guys, there's a familiar, comfortable feeling where they want to be home," Dancer said. "It gives our guys a little extra edge."

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis