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Men’s Tennis: Fighting off the Illini

Kate Gales | Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Another day, another road match against a top-notch opponent.

After spending the weekend in North Carolina and dropping two 4-3 matches to No. 30 UNC and No. 9 Duke, Notre Dame is back on the road to face No. 3 Illinois.

“I think it’s a great challenge,” coach Bobby Bayliss said.

“That’s what sports are all about. It’s our job to be ready to play [today], and we will be.”

The Irish are 2-3, with wins over William & Mary and Northwestern. All three losses – including a loss to then-No. 1 Virginia – have been on the road, by the frustratingly close margin of 4-3.

“You’ve been in a position to win all three matches, all at the end, all on the road,” Bayliss said. “If you’re that good on the road, you’re probably absolutely as good as they are on a neutral court, so we’ve just got to keep that in mind.”

The Irish have benefited from a revamped doubles lineup featuring juniors Ryan Keckley and Barry King together in the top spot. The two knocked off the nation’s No. 1 doubles team of Riain Luichici and Brad Pomeroy at UNC and also posted a win at Duke.

But Illinois – a perennial tennis power, particularly in doubles – also won the doubles point from the Blue Devils. The Illlini account for Duke’s only loss so far this season.

Bayliss is confident in the team’s ability against Illinois, despite recent struggles on the road.

“I think the toughening process will take place now,” he said. “I think we’ve got a bunch of Big 10 teams coming up next week – Illinois then Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan. I think we’ll benefit from the teams we’ve been playing. We’ve got to just build on it and turn ourselves into the team we know we can be.”

Illinois is 3-0 this season and has won five straight matches from the Irish, most recently a St. Patrick’s Day showdown on March 17, 2005. The Irish fell 6-1 at the Eck Tennis Pavilion.

“We have to be ready to play a strong Illinois team that probably is ranked three now, and they probably deserve to be because they’ve beaten Duke and Virginia,” Bayliss said. “We know we’re right there, but I don’t think anyone’s anywhere near satisfied.

Illinois has four of the top 100 doubles players, led by Ryler DeHeart at No. 7. Kevin Anderson is tied for 37, and Ruben Gonzales follows at No. 59. Ryan Rowe entered the rankings at No. 99. DeHeart is only eight career wins away from the Illinois record held by Michael Calkins with a record of 116-30.

The Atkins Tennis Center in Urbana is also a difficult place for visitors to win. The Illinis boast a 47-1 record at the courts, which dates back to March 30, 2002.

But Bayliss and the team remain undaunted by the statistical disadvantages.

“We’ve been in two matches against Top 10 teams and been in a position to win them both,” Bayliss said. “We’ve been playing at a pretty high level, we just have to be able to win one of these. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Irish and Illini take the courts at 6 p.m. today.