Tate: UI tennis program has produced flood of memories

Tate: UI tennis program has produced flood of memories

CHAMPAIGN – The UI's All-Century team tells the story of men's tennis.

Of the 16 selected all-stars, four performed early in the last century and are deceased. The other 12 were recruited by former coach Craig Tiley in the late 1990s or thereafter as the Illini produced nine consecutive Big Ten titles and the NCAA crown in 2003. There is no one between 1932 Big Ten singles champ Ed Lejeck and 1995 enrollees Gavin Sontag and Oliver Freelove.

Amer Delic, the hottest of these UI products, won't be among the seven or eight All-Century members on hand this weekend as he climbs the professional ladder. The former NCAA singles champion is ranked in the mid-60s internationally after defeating No. 40 Julian Benneteau, No. 37 Jose Acasuso and No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko before losing in Key Biscayne, Fla.

"Delic is in Houston," UI coach Brad Dancer said. "He is the first Illini player to be ranked in the top 100, and he has the opportunity to be in the main draw for virtually every tournament for a while."

The All-Century members and the 1946 Big Ten champions (represented by Roger Downs) were honored Friday night at a banquet and will be recognized again after the doubles point in the 1 p.m. UI-Northwestern match today at Atkins Tennis Center.

Current Illini members are not eligible for the All-Century team, a ruling that prevents the NCAA doubles champion duo of Kevin Anderson and Ryan Rowe, both juniors, from being considered.

The gala weekend offers a reminder of how the tennis team has excelled and how difficult it will be for Dancer to keep the Illini on top. Ohio State won the Big Ten last spring and will be favored to repeat.

"We have very high expectations, and the players feel a lot of pressure," Dancer said. "That won't change."

But there have been recent setbacks. Terre Haute (Ind.) junior Ruben Gonzales was required to take six weeks off after a lung injury that was the result of coughing. A key team member, he'll return in mid-April.

Both recruited freshmen, Bill Heiser and Sasha Kharkevitch, are lost for the season, Heiser falling short academically (he's still in school) and Kharkevitch sidelined with a stress fracture.

"We expected strong contributions from those two," Dancer said.

Anderson remains the team leader, three of his losses coming against the top three players in the NCAA. Anderson will consider turning pro after this year.

"This is a situation we look at every year," Dancer said. "To make the jump, Kevin will have to prove himself over the summer. We'd love to have him back as a senior. We'll talk more about this later."

After Anderson, the quartet of Rowe, Gonzales, sophomore Marc Spicijaric and lone senior GD Jones "can be lined up in any order," Dancer said. After facing Northwestern today, the Illini travel to No. 5 Notre Dame on Sunday before hosting Kentucky, another Top 25 school, on Wednesday.

Looking good

Men's tennis remains the UI's signature sport, based on nine straight Big Ten championships prior to 2006 and the undefeated national championship in 2003.

And if the eighth-ranked netters will be hard-pressed to catch second-ranked Ohio State in the Big Ten, they're in better shape than any other UI varsity sport. Fact is, as a 19-sport operation, the Illini have slumped since peaking in 2005.

The rundown of men's sports follows:

Basketball – Bruce Weber's fourth club was 9-7 in the Big Ten and out of the NCAA's first round;

Football – Cellar dwellers are coming off 2-9 and 2-10 records as Ron Zook rebuilds;

Baseball – 29-29 was the record last year and it's 8-9 after a victory Friday at Purdue;

Cross-Country – 10 straight years of eighth or worse in the Big Ten;

Golf – Mike Small had three Big Ten runner-up teams before slipping to 11th and fifth the last two years.

Track and field – A disappointing eighth-place finish in the Big Ten Indoor should be improved outdoors with Tramell Smith, Adrian Walker and Dominique Worsley (if his hamstring permits) rejoining the team;

Wrestling – They've fallen from Big Ten champs in 2005 to seventh this month.

Gymnastics – With Justin Spring gone from 2006 NCAA runner-up, Yoshi Hayasaki is reloading with young talent.

And the women's sports:

Basketball – Theresa Grentz's women haven't won an NCAA game since 2000 and are 50-62 in the Big Ten since then;

Soccer – Strongest women's program took second behind Big Ten champ Penn State;

Softball – Homers are flying this spring but, like UI baseball team, young pitching is a question mark after consecutive 8-11 Big Ten finishes;

Cross-Country – Karen Harvey had two Big Ten runners-up before No. 5 finish in the fall;

Volleyball – The 10-year audit shows drastic Big Ten swings from a low of 4-16 to a high of 15-5, and they're striving to escape mediocrity with touted recruits.

Swimming – Illini women were ninth in the conference;

Tennis – Coach Sujay Lama left after 10th-place finish in Big Ten last spring;

Track and field – Joining the men in their lone outdoor appearance April 14, they could improve on their fifth-place performance in the Big Ten Indoor;

Golf – Renee Slone takes over a program that shows nine finishes among the Big Ten's bottom three in the last 11 years;

Gymnastics – Never better than fifth in the Big Ten since 1991.

SWEET 16

Illinois will honor its All-Century men's tennis team during today's match against Northwestern. The rundown:

Craig Tiley (1993-2005), Coach of the 2003 NCAA champions

Walter Beck (1916-17), UI's first Big Ten singles champion (1916)

Michael Calkins (2001-04), All-time winningest player in school history (246 combined wins)

Ryler DeHeart (2002-06), 2005 All-American and All-Big Ten selection

Amer Delic (2000-03), Three-time All-American was first Illinois NCAA singles champ (2003)

Cary Franklin (1996-2000), Teamed with Graydon Oliver for UI's first NCAA doubles title (2000)

Oliver Freelove (1995-99), 1999 All-American and two-time All-Big Ten selection

Jeff Laski (1996-2000), 2000 All-American and All-Big Ten pick

Edward Lejeck (1931-32), UI's only Big Ten singles champion in the 1930s

Frank Meyers (1921-22), Won 1922 Big Ten singles title

Tim O'Connell (1925-28), Won three consecutive Big Ten singles titles and two doubles titles

Graydon Oliver (1999-2000), NCAA doubles champ won Big Ten Medal of Honor

Rajeev Ram (2003), All-American and All-Big Ten pick won NCAA doubles title

Gavin Sontag (1995-99), Two-time All-Big Ten pick was school's first All-American

Phil Stolt (2000-04), Four-time All-Big Ten selection was an Arthur Ashe Award honoree

Brian Wilson (2000-04), Two-time All-American teamed with Ram to win NCAA doubles title

Note: Chris Martin (2002-05), who clinched the 2003 NCAA title, was named honorary captain

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached viae-mail at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis
Categories (3):Illini Sports, Tennis, Sports