Mark Batke / Lantern reporter
The Ohio State men’s tennis team will look to avenge its most recent Big Ten loss as it prepares to take on rival Illinois later this week.
The No. 5 Buckeyes (24-2, 7-0) have not lost a conference match since April 29, 2012, when the team came up short against Illinois (12-8, 5-2), 4-3, in the 2012 Big Ten Tournament championship match in Evanston, Ill. Having secured a 7-0 shutout victory against the Illini earlier in the regular season, many felt the regular season conference champion Buckeyes were robbed of their seventh-consecutive tournament crown.
Reflecting on the loss, OSU coach Ty Tucker said that he remembers players’ attitudes to have been the major contributing factor.
“I remember the attitudes not being there. It (was) a windy, cold day, the ball’s not going through the air fast, we’d beat (Illinois) pretty badly earlier on (in Columbus) in the regular season … then we got (to Evanston), and it’s probably a 48, 49 degree day … and we got outfought. When they were fighting us hard and standing up to us, we looked to not have a good attitude,” Tucker said.
Tucker said many of his top performers, such as junior Blaz Rola and senior Connor Smith, lost close matches against Illinois and exhibited “frustrated” behaviors and “deer in the headlights” looks.
Rola said the tournament loss to the Illini was one of the program’s hardest losses during his time at OSU.
“For the last three years I’ve been here, the final against Illinois was not only the toughest match to lose, but we weren’t even close to our standards. I think that hurt us the most,” he said.
The opportunity to avenge last season’s upset loss is what has fueled the Scarlet and Gray squad for much of the 2013 campaign.
“We are really, really motivated. I heard guys (on the team) talking about it through the whole year, and we are really excited to play (Illinois),” Rola said.
Redshirt junior Peter Kobelt said he is certain OSU will not underestimate its conference rival when they face off this Friday.
“After what happened last year, there will be no (underestimating) happening. We’re going to take them just as seriously as we would take any other Big Ten team,” Kobelt said. “(Illinois) plays well at home, they bring out great crowds, and they really rally off each other, so we’ll be ready to go.”
Even with the Buckeyes’ increased focus and motivation toward the Illinois rematch, Tucker and his squad still anticipate a close, hard-fought match. OSU sits atop the Big Ten standings, with the Illini slotted in third place.
“In the 16 years I’ve been here as an assistant coach and head coach, Illinois has set the standard. Illinois won a national title, Illinois was the last one to beat us at home, Illinois was the last one to beat us in the Big Ten. All roads always go through Illinois, and it doesn’t matter – it’s like an Ohio State-Michigan football game,” he said.
Tucker also mentioned that Illinois’ coach, Brad Dancer, is someone he played tennis against growing up and has known for about 30 years.
Tucker said if Friday’s match at Illinois is played outside, the weather could play a factor into the outcome and flow of play. The weather is expected to be cloudy in Champaign, Ill., with a high temperature of 48 degrees and 20 mph winds, according to weather.com.
“If you play tennis in the Big Ten and you play outside, the ball is going to blow around and the conditions are going to be tough to beat, and it’s not going to be clean tennis,” Tucker said.
All else set aside, players’ mentality will be the deciding factor as to who comes out on top, Tucker said.
“We just hope that (for) these guys, the motivation will be there from what happened in the Big Ten finals last year, and they’ll understand that Illinois is going to fight. No matter what happens – playing great or playing bad – that you can’t lose the level of intensity or fight.”
OSU’s match against Illinois is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. on Friday in Champaign, Ill.