Illini seeking top spot
URBANA – Like cricket, the Queen and tea time, Oliver Freelove's big in Britain but hasn't caught on in the United States.
After a jolly good summer abroad, the brainy Brit shot up to No. 22 in England's men's professional tennis rankings.
Not too shabby for a guy who's never played higher than No. 4 in the University of Illinois lineup.
"It was weird. I didn't have a really good college year and for some reason, I jumped a few levels when I was playing professionally," Freelove said. "Either I underachieved in college or I really had a great summer. I think it's a little bit of both."
Now he's hoping to become this year's Spice Girls and break through in the American charts.
He'll get two cracks at it this month, with the ITA All-American Championships (this week) and the Rolex Regionals (Halloween) on the menu.
Play there like he did against the pros on the British satellite circuit in August, and Freelove should make his move.
"I expect far greater things from him this year than he produced last year," UI coach Craig Tiley said. "He played at a significantly higher level this summer than he had been. He's come back a far more confident player."
That's what happens when you've got a world ranking as a college junior. Sampras is still a ways away, but Freelove's name can be found on the same ATP Tour World Rankings list.
He's No. 979 in singles, No. 802 in doubles – and ready to duke it out with Cary Franklin and Gavin Sontag for the top spot on Tiley's lineup card.
"I don't think too many college players have (a world ranking)," Freelove said. "Considering I only played a month of tournaments, that's not bad. It's a good indicator that I'm on track to do what I want to do, which is play professional tennis."
He's studying business at Illinois, but that's not the program that lured him overseas. If all he wanted to do was go to school, he could have stayed home and gone to Cambridge, like big brother Alex.
No, the reason he decided to leave family and friends back in London was for what the UI offered athletically.
There's no Big Ten Conference in the UK.
"There's no college system where players can continue to develop their game with an idea of professional tennis in mind," Freelove said. "You're either good enough to go into the pros as a junior – very few players, even Americans, are good enough to go straight to the pros – or they just give up tennis, just peter out."
Or they get themselves a passport and come to America, like Freelove did.
He'd heard good things about Tiley from the UI's coach's old college roomie, Ross Brown, who just so happened to be Freelove's personal coach. Freelove figured four years under Tiley, who coaches the pros in his spare time, would be a smart career move.
"He gives you the complete package," Freelove said. "Technically, he's good. Mentally ... he knows how to relax you and give you confidence in yourself. And he's had a lot of experience with professional players."
Soon, Tiley says, he'll have another. Freelove's game is as big as his frame (6-foot-4), and he's from a country that's short on tennis stars.
They have a little tournament across the pond every June, and they're always looking for a few good Englishmen to play.
"If I can make it into the top 10 in England, then I'll have the opportunity to play Wimbledon," Freelove said. "Even if my ranking worldwide isn't good enough, as long as my British ranking's high, I'll be able to get a wild card into Wimbledon and the warmup tournaments.
"That would completely boost my career."
October's a busy month for the University of Illinois men's tennis team, which has three tournaments on tap:
ITA ALL-AMERICAN CHAMPIONSHIPS: Cary Franklin, Oliver Freelove and Gavin Sontag among the Illini in Austin, Texas, for the first major meet of the college season. Runs through Sunday.
FIGHTING ILLINI FALL INVITATIONAL: Friday-Sunday at Atkins Tennis Center. Northwestern, Indiana, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Ball State and DePaul are on the guest list, but some of the individual headliners may be tied up in Texas.
ROLEX REGIONALS: Atkins Tennis Center's the place for the grand fall finale, which will feature 30 of the Midwest's best teams (Oct. 31-Nov. 3). Do well here, and Illinois could carry a high national ranking into the spring season.