The biggest match of their lives was about 30 minutes away. All that stood between the Illinois men’s tennis team and the first-place trophy in the NCAA Championships was sixth-ranked underdog Vanderbilt.
But these Illini had a knack for combining horseplay with stellar play, and as members of the nation’s top-ranked team warmed up on May 20, 2003, at Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga., they had yet to put on their game faces. Silliness, it seems, always had its place with these guys — even in this highest-of-stakes atmosphere.
“All the joking around and horseplay, it was nonstop,” then-sophomore and soon-to-be title-match hero Chris Martin recalled. “We’re warming up right before the championship match and somehow we got into a heated discussion across the three warmup courts about what each of our pseudo-names and costumes would be if we were WWF wrestlers.
“Then, a few hours later, we were all hoisting the trophy.”
And celebrating a historic moment for an Illini program that 10 years earlier lost 23 of 27 dual meets and had an 0-10 Big Ten record. Illinois’ hard-earned 4-3 triumph against the Commodores was a historic moment for collegiate tennis, too. With its undefeated march to the sport’s pinnacle, 32-0 Illinois became the first team other than four warm-weather powerhouses — UCLA, Stanford, Southern California and Georgia — to win an NCAA title in men’s tennis since 1977.
The memory never gets old.
“I always get the goose bumps visualizing all of us running on Court 6 when Chris Martin won the deciding match,” No. 1 singles player Amer Delic said.
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Delic & Co. indeed had reason to shiver — but with apprehension — as the Illini’s final match of 2003 unfolded. After losing the doubles point, Illinois dropped two of three singles matches to fall into a 3-1 hole.
To say this was uncharted territory would be an understatement. Not once before had these Illini yielded more than two team points to an opponent. Now, coach Craig Tiley’s juggernaut had its back pressed firmly to the wall. No wiggle room. No margin for error.
“To be honest, our team had not faced this type of adversity and uncertainty all year,” No. 4 singles player Phil Stolt said.
Each of the remaining three singles matches entered a third set. At times, it became simply too unbearable to watch.
“I remember looking over at the stands, watching all the alumni who had contributed to that moment,” Tiley said. “Many of them were cheering every point, but they were also covering their eyes in anguish.”
On the court, however, this was a situation the Illini had prepared for. It was no coincidence that their prematch banter had focused on WWE’s modern-day version of trained combatant.
“We had a gladiator theme for NCAAs and to never give up,” Stolt said. “We all had some sort of reminder on our shoe, so when we looked down we would be constantly be reminded to keep fighting.”
Then-junior Michael Calkins, at No. 5 singles, was the first of the remaining Illini to finish off his foe. Then Stolt, who had struggled so mightily in the semifinal round that he nearly was pulled from the singles lineup against Vanderbilt, captured his three-setter at No. 4.
Now, all eyes — and both teams — gravitated to the court where Martin and Vanderbilt’s Lewis Smith were engaged in a winner-take-all battle at No. 6 singles.
“The same Chris Martin that a few months prior broke his nose when he completely missed the ball and the racket’s momentum was halted by his face,” Delic said.
The then-sophomore might be teased for that moment of klutziness, but Delic and his teammates also had seen the accomplished Chris Martin who “would do a side-to-side drill without ever missing a ball.” The unselfish Chris Martin who “gave up a big chunk of his scholarship so we have enough money to bring in another guy that would help the team.”
They never doubted the outcome. Never doubted Martin would prevail against Smith 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 to cap the Illini’s unforgettable journey to college tennis’ mountaintop.
“The ultimate teammate won the deciding match for the ultimate prize,” Delic said.
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As the 10th anniversary of their national championship approaches, many members of the 2003 Illini are planning to reunite this month, drawn together not only by the milestone marker of time, but by an event they know so well: the NCAA Championships.
The tournament the Illini once ruled is coming to their campus this week, a testament to the stature — and the infrastructure — this program has attained.
The $5.3 million Atkins Tennis Center already was in place when the 2003 Illini first arrived at the UI, but it can be argued that those players provided compelling impetus for the construction of the $5.5 million Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex, which opened in 2009. Just as Clint Atkins once had been motivated to provide the means to build the UI’s indoor tennis facility, so UI alumnus Shahid Khan and his wife Ann saw the value of completing the facilities vision of Tiley and his then-athletic director, Ron Guenther.
The Atkins Center, says Guenther, enabled Tiley to compete for the type of recruits that made a national title possible. The Khan Complex, in turn, made it possible to compete in the bidding for the NCAA Championships.
“It was always part of our master plan to build that facility so we could eventually host (the NCAA Championships),” said Guenther, who now serves as a special assistant to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
So, how did the Illinois men’s tennis team get from there to here? From a program in disarray when Tiley was appointed interim head coach in 1992 to the center of the NCAA Division I tennis world for two weeks in May 2013?
The unanimous response: It started with Tiley.
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The new Illini coach seemingly faced a daunting task. Yes, the Atkins Center was in place, having opened in October 1991. At the time, however, that was about all Tiley had to sell to recruits. In the previous seven seasons, Illinois finished with a winning dual-meet record merely twice — and never more than three wins above .500. Only once in that span did the Illini place higher than sixth in its conference.
But after a disastrous debut season, Tiley made tangible progress in Year 2. The 1994 Illini won nine more matches than the previous season and improved from zero Big Ten wins to six.
By 1997, Illinois won the first of nine straight Big Ten titles. By Year 11 of Tiley’s tenure, the Illini were NCAA champions.
“It wasn’t a one-year accomplishment; it was the result of consistent hard work over a period of time ... by many people,” Tiley said. “Our plan leading up to the title included recruiting American players who had a strong desire to compete in tennis beyond college; bringing the best character to the program; sticking to the development plan of each athlete; taking no shortcuts; and encouraging the community and staff buy into our success.”
In Guenther’s view, Tiley arrived with a vision, a plan to accomplish it and the ability to develop players. What the South Africa native lacked was a reputation.
“He had to establish himself,” Guenther said. “He an was outstanding teacher of tennis. He hadn’t been a head coach, and as he established himself he started to build a reputation which allowed him to recruit the kind of young people that could compete on the national level.”
In a sport long dominated by warm-weather schools, however, Tiley was selling what many considered the impossible dream. New Jersey native Stolt, part of a breakthrough recruiting class that joined the program in the fall of 2000, was among the believers.
“Craig didn’t care about warm/cold weather or past records,” Stolt said. “He knew if he could recruit and direct the right guys, he would turn Illinois into a powerhouse regardless of their dismal history.”
Tiley’s successor goes so far as to say that the former Illini coach changed the template for how to run a college tennis program. Brad Dancer, who joined Tiley’s staff in 2004 and was promoted after Tiley left in June 2005 to become Director of Player Development for Tennis Australia, recalls an era when college tennis coaches were more caretakers than developers of talent.
“And Craig said, ‘We’re going to be uber-professional about this. We are going to treat this like we are a professional team,’ ” Dancer said. “And he brought a professionalism to it that you now see across the board. That is completely changed in the last 10, 15 years that I’ve been a part of college tennis.
“I think coaching, training is much more a part of the results of college tennis (now) than just recruiting. I feel like that’s directly attributable to Craig.”
Evan Zeder, a sophomore on the 2003 title team, observed the same thing from a player’s perspective.
“Craig actually worked on developing players post-junior tennis, when most schools wouldn’t talk to players about changing their technique at such a late age, and (he) yielded results with players who hadn’t been the top guys but were now winning big-time college matches,” Zeder said.
Bruce Berque, then Tiley’s top assistant and now in his ninth season as Michigan’s head coach, played an instrumental role as well in this unique approach, according to Zeder.
“Then they were able to sell those results to better recruits, have the character of the players sell the school, and from that point develop some of the best players in the country into a position to compete on the pro tour,” Zeder said.
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The 2003 Illini clearly were the culmination of Tiley’s master plan. It’s a team that produced such future ATP World Tour pros as Delic, Wilson, Rajeev Ram and Ryler DeHeart. It also captured the 2003 NCAA singles (Delic) and doubles (Ram/Wilson) titles — giving Illinois the Triple Crown of men’s college tennis.
Just how deep was that Illini roster? Then-freshman DeHeart, who set and still holds the program record for career singles wins, was unable to crack the UI lineup for the final three rounds of the 2003 NCAA tournament. Pramod Dabir, who owns the all-time Illini mark for consecutive wins, similarly watched from the sidelines after the first round.
“I played in the No. 6 spot that year and played behind five All-Americans,” Martin said. “A (typical) college tennis team would be lucky to have one All-American, and we had five.”
Nor was Tiley shy about rearranging the order — or the composition — of his lineup — ratcheting up a highly competitive training atmosphere even more.
“The ability Craig had to motivate everyone with the real potential of their spot dropping in their position or even out of the lineup was very real,” Zeder said, “so the practices were some of the more intense ones I have ever been a part of.
“Every match, Craig would move the lineup around, with no player ever knowing where they would start, especially 1 through 4. We were the only team I had ever seen or heard of that a player could play 1 in a big match, and the next day move to playing 4, with other coaches not being able to argue it.
“The fact that we had Phil Stolt, who was (ranked as high as No.) 2 in the country playing 4 in our final match just shows the level of depth.”
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Ten years later, the spotlight once again shines on the University of Illinois.
Starting Thursday and running through May 27, the sport’s best will match skills and vie for titles on the courts the Illini call home.
The UI has known this day would come since June 25, 2010, when the NCAA announced it had awarded 2013 hosting rights to the school.
Like the accomplishments of the 2003 Illini, this is a first-of-its-kind experience for Illinois. And like the 2003 champs, Illinois now is joining some elite company by welcoming an NCAA Championships to its campus.
“I think we are a school that’s going to continue to be in the running to be a host institution,” Dancer said. “We view ourselves as elite. And I think the facility, hosting NCAAs, keeps us as part of that.”
Many of the guys who put Illini tennis on the map promise they’ll be back to watch.
And to reminisce. Martin wouldn’t be surprised if the returning players pick up where they left off a decade ago on that goofy conversation about WWE personas.
“The argument further evolved into what super power you would choose if you could only have one,” Martin recalled. “Looking back, it’s moments like that that I remember most about our championship year.”