CHAMPAIGN — Zeke Clark made the 8 1 / 2-hour drive from Champaign to his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., late last month.
Gave the 21-year-old Illinois senior some time to think.
About this past Illini men’s tennis season that ended abruptly for Clark and his teammates on March 12 after the NCAA canceled spring sports amid the coronavirus pandemic.
About what his future tennis career holds.
About whether he’d ever play for Illinois again.
But by the time the NCAA voted on March 30 to give spring sport athletes another year of extra eligibility since their 2020 seasons were lost because of the pandemic, Clark didn’t need to think much.
“I’m coming back,” Clark said. “That decision to return was very easy. It’s made dealing with this very uncertain time much more bearable knowing that I’m going to get another shot.”
After talking with Illinois coach Brad Dancer and Illinois assistant coach Marcos Asse, Clark felt comfortable in making sure he ends his Illinois career in 2021.
“I’ve poured everything I have into the program, along with the other seniors on the team and the rest of my teammates,” Clark said. “To be able to do it again means the world to me, and I’m going to prepare that much more.”
Clark said earlier this week he has been able to play some tennis with other college players who call Tulsa home.
“We’re lucky because there are a couple public courts that haven’t been locked up,” Clark said. “I’ve been able to practice and train, but I honestly haven’t played any competitive tennis since our last match against Purdue.”
That was on March 8 at Atkins Tennis Center. Four days later, though, Clark had to start thinking about future plans this spring that would not involve any more matches representing Illinois. It was hard to process for those first few weeks after the cancelation of the season.
“When I was leaving Champaign, all of the eligibility questions were still to be determined,” Clark said. “I left town very unsure because I didn’t know if that was going to be the last time I’d be in Champaign as an athlete. It was a little bit of a weird departure.”
Clark’s arrival at Illinois in 2016 featured him picking the Illini ahead of Baylor and Oklahoma. The efforts by Dancer and his staff to form a relationship with Clark at the start of the recruiting process proved beneficial.
“We made a good offer early on, and I think that surprised him a little bit,” Dancer said. “Oklahoma was coming off its second or third straight national championship match, but I think, fortunately for us, they were only losing their No. 1 player. They thought, ‘Can Zeke come in and fill that role?’ I didn’t care what role he could fill because I wanted Zeke on my team.”
The adjustment period, though, to both college and college tennis took time for Clark. Going from a small, private high school in Tulsa to a sprawling Illinois campus made for a few interesting moments.
“I graduated high school with 27 kids in my class,” Clark said of his time at Riverfield Country Day School. “Going into one of my first classes at Illinois with 900 kids in a stats class was a bit of a culture shock.”
But Clark credits his teammates for helping him navigate his first year in college. They had his back.
“If I went into this all alone, it would have been really, really tough to get used to,” Clark said. “I’ve formed such great friendships with these guys, and I’m so grateful for that.”
The 5-foot-6 Clark quickly became a dependable option for the Illini on the court. He carries an 83-42 career mark in singles matches, highlighted by a 28-13 ledger he put forth during the 2018-19 season. The trust Dancer has in Clark’s ability has grown. Immensely. Easy to see why, too, since Clark sports a 21-6 record in Big Ten singles matches.
“He’s gone through probably one of the biggest progressions of anyone I’ve coached,” Dancer said. “He’s always been a fighter, and that’s been bred in him. But it was hurting him when he got to college because his skill set was growing so much. We told him, ‘Stop fighting and start winning.’ Unbelievable credit to him to trust in the coaching staff and the vision we had for him in becoming more offensive and dictating more of the game. Now, when he plays, it’s so fun to watch.”
And that’s even before a match starts. Safe to say, the high-energy Clark is Illinois men’s tennis official hype man.
“Each year, I’ve become more and more comfortable in that setting,” Clark said. “I just go out there and do my thing.”
Clark knows the next time he makes the drive from Champaign to Tulsa, he’ll have plenty to reflect on. Like how his Illinois tennis career should end on his own terms. And how he won’t take for granted the next time he gets to suit up for the Illini.
“We’ve been presented with an opportunity that not all of us expected,” Clark said. “More than anything, we’ll be a little more appreciative because we’ve been given this chance to play college tennis again. To be able to do it one more time at Illinois will be super special.”
Getting to know Zeke Clark
More on Illinois senior men’s tennis player Zeke Clark away from the court:
Favorite athlete: Roger Federer
Favorite sport beside tennis: Soccer
Three people I’d like to have dinner with: Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell and LeBron James
Favorite TV show: The Office