Illinois tennis team suffers first conference loss, Illini fall 4-0 to #2 OSU

URBANA - One would have thought the steady 20mph breeze at Shahid & Ann Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex would have been ideal conditions for Illinois to upset #2 Ohio State (19-2) on Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, the 70º day, blessed with plenty of sunshine, did not fair well for the Fighting Illini (13-8), who lost the home match 4-0 to Buckeyes in their second Big Ten match of the season.

Tennis player Mathis Debru
Illinois' Mathis Debru celebrates after he and doubles partner Oliver Okonkwo tie up their match at 4-all. The duo fell 6-4 to Ohio State's Robert Cash and Justin Boulais. Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

The key to OSU's victory and Illinois' demise was the basic 'brains over brawn' approach.

Physically, Ohio State's roster, compared pound-for-pound, did not measure up to the lightning quick, ball-bashing, uberfit Illinois squad.

"We have the student athletes to get the job done," head coach Brad Dancer said, clearly disappointed of the team's performance after the match. "It was evident today we are not in the mindset to take control of the Big Ten. Tennis matches are like prize fights – you have to hit with your best and you have to take your opponent's best. The difference is you can't get KO'd."

The sustained wind out of the south played havoc for both squads. Typical low-percentage shots that Illini players make routinely missed wide far too often. Groundstokes tended to stay a loft too long, only to bounce a foot or two out of bounds.

Across all six courts during singles, the Buckeyes adjusted their style of play and stopped trying to slug it out toe-to-toe with the Illini. OSU opted for a new strategy focused on keeping the ball in play, while Illinois kept going after the big shots and settling more often than not unforced errors.

The tactical change worked. Playing smart tennis, OSU's JJ Tracy soundedly defeated Illinois' William Mroz, 6-1, 6-2. Minutes later, Mroz' teammate, Nic Meister, was packing his racquet bag after falling Jack Anthrop, 6-2, 6-1.

"So you walk on the court and start punching and start defending and you have to get used to getting punched in the gut, and punching back and realize this is tennis. It doesn't go away, so get comfortable fighting and being tough. When this team is able to consistently do that we will have a great squad. Until we can be consistent in that then we are what we are."

Right: Oliver Okonkwo chases a ball off the court during his #2 Doubles match with partner Mathis Debru. Left: Junior Hunter Heck returns a serve to his backhand during his doubles match with Karlis Ozolins. The pair was trailing 5-4 in their #1 Doubles match against OSU's Andrew Lutschaunig and James Trotter when play was ended after the Illini recorded losses on the #2 and #3 doubles courts. Photos: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

The remaining four singles matches went to a third set tie-break. Despite down 3-0 on the north scoreboard, Illinois still had a chance to engineer an upset until Ohio State's James Trotter, who forced the breaker after taking the second set 6-3, sealed the team victory with his third set 6-2 win over Illinois' Alex Petrov. Petrov won the opening set between the pair 6-4.

Earlier, in doubles competition Alex Petrov and Kenta Miyoshi were the first shake hands after dropping the match to OSU's Cannon Kingsley and JJ Tracy, 6-2. Then, with a stroke of luck, Buckeyes Robert Cash and Justin Boulais slid by Oliver Okonkwo who partnered with Mathis Debru in a dramatic 6-4 finish to secure the doubles point.

This weekend the Fighting Illini men's tennis team are on a two-match road trip to face Purdue University on Friday and then head south to Bloomingon, Indiana, for another conference match against Indiana University on Sunday.


Ohio State 4, Illinois 0

1. #49 Hunter Heck/Karlis Ozolins (ILL) vs. #7 Andrew Lutschaunig/James Trotter (OSU) 4-5, unfinished
2. #36 Robert Cash/Justin Boulais (OSU) def. #56 Oliver Okonkwo/Mathis Debru (ILL) 6-4
3. Cannon Kingsley/JJ Tracy (OSU) def. Alex Petrov/Kenta Miyoshi (ILL) 6-2

1. #33 Karlis Ozolins (ILL) vs. #2 Cannon Kingsley (OSU) 7-6 (7-3), 4-6, 4-4, unfinished
2. Hunter Heck (ILL) vs. Justin Boulais (OSU) 2-6, 6-4, 5-1, unfinished
3. #25 James Trotter (OSU) def. Alex Petrov (ILL) 4-6, 6-3, 6-2
4. #15 JJ Tracy (OSU) def. William Mroz (ILL) 6-1, 6-2
5. Oliver Okonkwo (ILL) vs. Alexander Bernard (OSU) 6-3, 5-7, 4-3, unfinished
6. Jack Anthrop (OSU) def. Nic Meister (ILL) 6-2, 6-1

Over 200 spectators enjoyed the warmest day yet this spring watching the Illini battle OSU at Atkins Tennis Center. The Illinois team plays at home next on April 14 for Mom's Day and again April 16 for Senior Day. Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks