TULSA, Okla. – Michael Calkins has won so many singles matches in his Illinois tennis career, he can''t possibly remember them all.
But Saturday''s was one he''ll never forget.
"It''s probably the biggest, considering it''s tournament time, and once you lose you''re out," said Calkins, whose 122nd career singles win added to his own school record and clinched a tense 4-3 Illini win against Harvard in Saturday''s NCAA tournament match. "I''m glad I got through it."
In beating Harvard''s Cliff Nguyen 6-3, 6-7, 6-2, Calkins moved Illinois into today''s quarterfinal match against Vanderbilt, a rematch of last season''s NCAA title match won by the Illini.
If Illinois (31-0) has any hope of repeating, it''ll have to play better than it did Saturday at the Michael D. Case Tennis Center, where the Illini jumped out 1-0 by winning the doubles point but struggled in singles.
Chris Chiou took care of Illinois'' GD Jones 7-5, 6-2 at No. 6 to open the singles scoring, and from there, the Illini didn''t gain control until Calkins'' final point.
Ryler DeHeart won a hard-fought 6-4, 7-5 decision at No. 3 to put Illinois back on top 2-1, but the Illini couldn''t pull away. At No. 2, the Crimson''s Jonathan Chu beat Phil Stolt 7-6, 6-3 before top-ranked Brian Wilson won 6-3, 7-6 against David Lingman to put Illinois on top 3-2.
That lead was short-lived. Chris Martin, playing in his hometown, lost 2-6, 6-2, 6-1 at No. 4 to Harvard''s Martin Wetzel, tying the match at 3-3 and setting up Calkins'' heroics.
"I tell you what: If you want to go to battle with some guy, you''re going to take Calkins with you, and you''ll win," Illinois coach Craig Tiley said. "He''s the heart and soul."
And thanks to him, the Illini''s heart still is beating.
But a repeat performance today will leave Illinois flatlining.
Which is why Tiley might be the only one among the eight coaches remaining in this NCAA tournament who was in a foul mood Saturday night.
His postmatch chat with his team, Calkins said, "wasn''t one of the better ones," Tiley ripping into his team for a lack of focus that allowed leads to slip in singles.
Martin dominated in his first set only to lose in three, and Calkins built a big lead before being taken to a third set in the day''s pivotal match.
"We''re just glad to get through it," Wilson said. "It''s definitely a wakeup call, and hopefully we take care of business (today)."
That means taking care of a surging Vanderbilt team eager to play giant-killer after coming up short in last season''s Cinderella run to the NCAA finals.
"They want to win this thing badly because they didn''t last year," Tiley said. "We''re looking to play Vandy, and that''s going to be a fun match. They''ll be fired up to play us."
The Commodores reached the quarterfinals with back-to-back wins against SEC rivals, last weekend upsetting Mississippi – a team Tiley thought would contend for the title – and knocking off Georgia 4-3 on Saturday.
The Illinois team the Commodores meet today might not be at full strength. DeHeart strained a muscle in his back Saturday, and Tiley said there''s about a "20 percent chance" he''ll play today. If he can''t go, Evan Zeder or Pramod Dabir will step in to play singles.
No matter who plays, Vanderbilt (17-11) hopes it has one upset left. But it would be a doozy. An Illinois loss today would snap a 63-match winning streak.
It could happen, Tiley said, if the Illini relax in singles play the way they did against the Crimson.
"We''ll be going home early if we let that happen in any spot," Tiley said. "I was happy with the effort from a couple of our guys. If we get a great effort from all six (today), we''re going to be tough."
Illinois has dominated men''s college tennis during the past two seasons, but Brian Wilson (above) and the Illini haven''t been without their share of scares. Close calls during Illinois'' 63-match winning streak:
May 20, 2003
UI 4, Vanderbilt 3*
Jan. 24, 2004
UI 4, Texas A&M 3
Feb. 6, 2004
UI 4, Duke 3
April 7, 2004
UI 4, Kentucky 3
April 11, 2004
UI 4, Ohio State 3
May 22, 2004
UI 4, Harvard 3*
* NCAA tournament match
You can reach Brett Dawson at (217) 373-7422 or via e-mail at email@example.com.