Monday, February 14, 2011

Illini Men Pull Double Upset

It was a great weekend for the Fighting Illini men as they upset two higher ranked opponents, paving the way for a top ten spot of their own.

Today’s rankings put the Illinois men at No. 8 and they worked hard this weekend to gain eight spots.  First up was No. 12 on Friday night.  After they captured the doubles point and five of six first sets, it looked like the large crowd at the Atkins Tennis Center would move the Illini into a quick victory, but it wasn’t quite that easy.  The first singles point would actually go to the Wildcats as a near perfect Eric Quigley took out Dennis Nevolo (left), 6-3,6-4, on Court 1.  Johnny Hamui (below) would put the home team back in the lead with a 6-3,6-4 win over Brad Cox, but it would get a bit more complicated after that.

Matches on courts 4, 5 and 6 would go deep into second sets as Court 2 – Illini Abe Souza and Kentucky’s Alex Musialek – were struggling to finish the first set.  The games were endless and didn’t go any quicker after Roy Kalmanovich came up with Illinois’ third point with a 7-6(6),6-4 win over Alberto Gonzalez.   It was then Souza stepped up his game over an opponent ranked 80 points above him and took the win at 6-4,6-4.  The final two matches would go to Kentucky in the third, for a finishing score of 4-3.

The match Saturday night against No. 7 Florida proved to be even more dramatic than the night before. It was something I hadn’t seen much and reminded me a lot of the 2005 NCAA Championship, when Baylor was up 3-0 and then the UCLA Bruins ended up winning the tournament. It was a similar event as the doubles point went to Florida after two out of three close courts came up in their favor.  That was followed by a quick 6-2,6-1 win by Sekou Bangoura Jr. over KU Singh at No. 2.  It wasn’t much longer before Florida was a point away from taking the match, as Nassim Slilam took Abe Souza by the same score on Court 4.

It seemed like this scenario was not foreign to the supportive Illinois spectators and no one went anywhere even though the scoreboard looked grim.  It proved to be the right move as  Hamui put the team on the board with a 6-2,6-4 upset over Bob van Overbeek.  A few minutes later there would be a 6-3,6-1 by Kalmonovich at No. 5 and a 6-3,6-3 win by Stephen Hoh at Court 6.  All of a sudden, it was a 3-3 match.

It all came down to the top court, where a major battle was taking place.  Dennis Nevolo, ranked No. 11 in the country, and Alexandre Lacrois, placed at No. 4, had been battling for hours. The first set would go to the Illini with just one break, but the second was a back and forth until it landed in a breaker.  Florida would lead all the way to the end and, even though Nevolo saved three set points, it would go to the Gator.  Everyone would have to wait through one more set for the match to be decided.  Surprisingly, that wait was very short as Nevolo took charge and shut out his opponent in less than a half hour.

The Atkins Tennis Center didn’t prove to be quite as lucky for the Illini women.  On Sunday, they dropped a heartbreaker to South Carolina in a match almost as even as the rankings (No. 29 vs. No. 26).  It was filled with exciting points and long games, especially within the contest between Katerina Popova and Chelcie Abajian, which finished with a 7-5,7-5(11-9) win for the former. The clincher would be at No. 2, where Breanne Smutko fell to Dijana Stjojic, 2-6,7-5,6-2.
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