URBANA — When UCLA coach Billy Martin and his players walked through the Atkins Tennis Center’s indoor facility this week in preparation for the NCAA finals, they looked up and saw the banners of past Illinois All-Americans, the first being Gavin Sontag in 1997-98. Guys like Jeff Laski, Rajeev Ram, Kevin Anderson, Amer Delic and Dennis Nevolo are also immortalized on the facility’s east wall.
Had fate not intervened four decades ago, chances are Martin could have been the first UI tennis All-American.
Thursday’s 4-0 win against Vanderbilt by the top-seeded Bruins earned them a berth in the NCAA Elite Eight. It wasn’t the first tennis triumph on the UI campus for the 20-year UCLA coach.
In 1971, as a freshman at Oak Park-River Forest in west suburban Chicago, Martin won the IHSA singles title and led the Huskies to the team state championship on the old Huff Courts. At the time, Martin was considered one of the top five players in the Chicago area and one of the state’s most promising prospects.
That summer, however, his dad was transferred to Los Angeles for work and the family moved.
“I was upset to move at the time,” Martin said. “When you’re that age and you’re having fun, playing with all your friends, it’s not easy moving across the country.”
Had the Martins remained in Chicago, there’s a strong possibility he would have wound up playing collegiately at Illinois. Both his parents, an aunt and an uncle graduated from Illinois. His older sister was enrolled and set to begin classes at the UI when the family moved.
“It would have been Illinois or Michigan, there’s no doubt,” Martin said. “Michigan was probably the stronger tennis place at the time, but I had so much family heritage at Illinois. There’s a darn good chance that’s where I would have ended up.”
The sour feelings about the move West didn’t last long for Martin as he soon realized the relocation was just what he needed to take his tennis game to an elite level. He was among the very best junior players in Illinois. In California, he was just another guy.
“When I got to California, there were probably 100 guys who could kick my fanny; it was that deep there,” Martin said. “It just opened my eyes to how much more I needed to improve if I wanted to become a top player.”
But his parents didn’t have to drive him all over the city during the winter to various indoor courts to play in Los Angeles. Martin could play anytime anywhere, and his game thrived in his new home. He practiced regularly with the UCLA and USC teams as a prep before playing one year collegiately for the Bruins, where he won a national title in singles in 1975 before turning pro.
Still, he credits his time in the Chicago area with his start in the sport.
“Chicago was an incredible mecca in terms of indoor courts. I think we had more indoor tennis courts in Chicago in the late ’60s, early ’70s than anywhere in the country,” he said. “It allowed us Chicago juniors to have access to be able to play year-round.”
UCLA players and staff hear stories regularly from Martin about his days growing up in Illinois. If not for the harsh Midwest winters — “I’m spoiled out in L.A.” he says — Martin might have looked into moving back to the area. He’s still got family and friends spread around the state.
“He’s definitely proud of growing up in the Midwest,” UCLA assistant coach Grant Chen said. “He tells us stories about winning the state championship and just his time here. It’s so great to sit back and listen to someone with so much knowledge who has been around the game for so long tell those kinds of stories.”
The Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Famer is excited to be back in the area and not only because his Bruins are favored to win their 17th NCAA title and second with Martin as their head coach.
“My grandparents are from a town a little north of here called Watseka. If we get some time while I’m here I want to go see where they’re buried,” Martin said. “I’ve got some old high school cronies who are going to make their way down to root for us, guys I’ve kept in touch with over the years.”
Being back home is fun, and so is reliving old memories for Martin. It would be even more special if he could add a new story to pass along if his Bruins can capture the crown in his home state.
“It really is special being back here; it’s such a pleasure,” he said. “The guys are focused and determined to try to reach our ultimate goal, which is to win this tournament. We’ve got to get a little bit lucky and have some things go our way, but it’s been a fun journey this year, and however it turns out I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished and how focused they’ve been.”