A decade later, with the Illini’s 2003 NCAA championship sliding into history, the greatest tennis team in UI history — maybe the premier Illini team in any sport, period — has one player still competing on the pro circuit.
Indianapolis native Rajeev Ram, back on the campus where he was one-and-done as an Illini, recalls that 32-0 season with pride.
“The NCAA title is one of my three greatest tennis memories,” the 29-year-old Ram said. “Should I have remained at Illinois longer? Hindsight is 20-20, and perhaps it would have been better for me. The pro circuit is highly physical. You don’t see many 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds knocking the doors down.”
Competing in 25 to 30 events per year, Ram can count roughly $1.8 million in earnings with a high point of $100,000 for winning singles and doubles at the Hall of Fame event in 2009 at Newport, R.I. That stands as his only singles title on the circuit, and one of six doubles championships.
Ram is the No. 3 seed in the U.S. Tennis Association’s 18th annual JSM Challenger this week at Atkins Tennis Center. It is the final 2013 event of the season. Ram will face Marcos Giron in a first-round match Tuesday night. Former Illini Dennis Nevolo played late Monday, and current Illini Jared Hiltzik and Tim Kopinski embark Tuesday, Hiltzik vs. Frenchman Jules Marie and Kopinski going against No. 8 seed John-Patrick Smith of Australia.
Ram, currently ranked No. 123 — he has been higher — performs with smooth dexterity and deft placement in a game dominated by incredibly powerful ground strokes. He is probably more efficient in doubles than singles, saying, “That’s probably true although I’ve never really focused on doubles.”
In this final event of the year, he is seeking points for seeding for next season and, most specifically, the Australian Open.
This isn’t golf, in which new champions arise week after week. It is the nature of the sport that the better tennis players consistently rule, leaving the scraps for the multitudes. At his best, Ram has reached the quarterfinals once each in the four Grand Slams — Wimbledon, French Open, U.S. Open and Australian Open — and has played in every Grand Slam event since 2007.
Meanwhile, all eight of his 2003 UI teammates have moved into the real world.
Brian Wilson, who teamed with Ram to win the 2003 NCAA doubles, and Michael Calkins work at an academy in Seattle, where Calkins founded an athletic clothing line. Evan Zeder works with Calkins.
NCAA singles champion Amer Delic and Chris Martin are in Texas, the former with a tennis academy in Austin, and the latter in business in Dallas (Martin’s clutch win clinched the 2003 title). Phil Stolt is with a fitness equipment company in Newark and New York City. Ryler DeHeart is assistant tennis coach at Alabama, and Pramod Dabir owns a company in San Francisco.
Between tennis and education, it appears their UI training worked well, and there’s more to these young men than the ability to smash a ball over the net. Their head coach, Craig Tiley, moved on to become director of the Australian Open and a dominant tennis force in Australia.
In hosting the 18th Challenger this week, Illini coach Brad Dancer maintains the up-front presence of Illinois in tennis nationally. The UI hosted the NCAA outdoor championships last spring and has placed a bid for a future repeat.
Dancer’s young team — no seniors — has made strides during autumn activity after losing to Vanderbilt 4-1 in the NCAA’s second round last May in Nashville, Tenn., thereby failing to qualify as a team for the home site.
In the recent National Indoor, New Trier’s Hiltzik finished second to UCLA’s Clay Thompson in the collegiate singles. Performances last month indicated that Hiltzik, Kopinski, Ross Guignon, Farris Gosea and Alex Jesse will form the nucleus of an improved Dancer squad. Illini members went 8-2 against Big Ten members in the Midwest Regional last month, Gosea reaching the semifinals before losing.
Kopinski and Hiltzik will gain more experience in the pro competition here as they join 30 others in singles play. The action will be free Tuesday and Wednesday, beginning at noon and running until 9 or 10 p.m. When quarterfinals begin Thursday, it’ll be $8 for adults and $5 for students and children.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette com.