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Monsters of the Midwest Unlikely power Illinois is top-ranked and unbeaten--and has an exuberant following

April 26, 2004
April 26, 2004

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April 26, 2004

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Monsters of the Midwest Unlikely power Illinois is top-ranked and unbeaten--and has an exuberant following

It was a typical game-day tableau at the University of Illinois.
Undergrads arrived early to tailgate in the parking lot, drinking
concoctions tinged in colors that don't otherwise appear in
nature. The marching band showed up in full force. More than
1,000 fans swaddled in orange and navy massed in the searing cold
outside the stadium portals. When the doors opened, they charged
through to get choice seats for ... a tennis match.

This is an article from the April 26, 2004 issue

It may lack the weather of Tempe, the beach access of Coral
Gables and the tradition found in Palo Alto, but Champaign has
emerged as a new hotbed--if that's the right word--of college
tennis. A school with little tennis tradition to speak of,
Illinois is suddenly the NCAA's hegemonic program. In beating
Kentucky earlier this month, the top-ranked Illini won their 51st
straight dual match, breaking Stanford's Division I record; the
streak stood at 55 through Sunday. Despite losing two of its top
three players from last season's 32-0 team, this year's
aggregation is the heavy favorite to successfully defend its NCAA
title next month in Tulsa. "When I first told people I was going
to play at Illinois, they thought I was taking crazy pills," says
senior Brian Wilson, the team's No. 1 singles player and, with
Rajeev Ram, the 2003 NCAA doubles champ. "Lately they have a
different impression."

Illini fans have responded to the team's stunning success--a
Champaign supernova, as it were--by comporting themselves with
enough passion to make Duke's Cameron Crazies look like
Benedictine monks. Hundreds of Net Nuts pack the stands at home
matches and generally raise hell for three hours, unleashing more
bawdy chants than British soccer fans. In between singles and
doubles play, dance troupes and rock bands and trick-performing
dogs entertain the crowd. Players are routinely mobbed for
autographs as they walk off the court. "I know every coach says,
'We have great fans,'" says Illinois coach Craig Tiley. "But this
atmosphere is just amazing. We get so many fans, I had to check
with the fire marshal to make sure we weren't violating the
capacity."

Quite apart from the unlikely locale, the players' origins make
the program's success all the more remarkable. At a time when
more than half of the top 100 singles players in Division I hail
from overseas, there is only one non-American on the Illini
roster, freshman GD Jones, a native of New Zealand. And he's a
walk-on. "I've seen programs exploit all sorts of loopholes,
bringing in 22-year-old freshmen and having guys play 'money
tournaments' in their home countries during the summer," says
Tiley. "We're not going to cut corners like that. I don't have a
problem with foreign players. I have a problem giving foreign
players scholarships."

A former South African Davis Cup captain who has coached many
professionals, Tiley, 42, came to Illinois in the early 1990s to
study for a Ph.D. in kinesiology. To make some extra cash, he
gave tennis lessons on campus for $10 an hour. At the time, the
Illinois men hadn't won a Big Ten title since 1946. When the
coach left in 1993, Tiley was offered the job on an interim
basis. During the off-season he approached athletic director Ron
Guenther with a meticulous long-term blueprint. His plan
envisioned winning a conference title within three years,
competing at a national level within five, and winning the NCAA
title and producing "impact pros" within a decade. The interim
tag was removed and, with almost eerie synchronicity, the program
fulfilled each step. What's more, under Tiley no player has
transferred; every player who competed for four years has
graduated; and in six of the last seven years, the program has
had the highest team GPA of any Illini men's sport.

The biggest recruiting hurdle is the weather, which can force the
team to practice indoors as late as mid-April, a fact that has
hardly escaped the notice of rival coaches from warmer climes.
When pressed, Tiley has a solid return game. He asserts that the
team plays 30% of its matches indoors, the identical proportion
of indoor events on the ATP calendar. Also, most programs that
play in 80° weather don't attract a rabid fan base. "I've grown
to appreciate cornfields, but I still haven't gotten used to the
cold," says Wilson, a San Diego native. "The thing is, what's a
few degrees when you're winning NCAA titles?"

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES LOVE MACHINE Wilson and the Illini, last year's national champions, carry a record 55-match win streak into this weekend.

Leveling the Court

Until the recent run by Illinois, West Coast schools had long
dominated college tennis. Here are the programs with the most
NCAA Division I national championships.

MEN'S TITLES WOMEN'S TITLES

Stanford 17 Stanford 12
Southern Cal 16 Florida 4
UCLA 15 Georgia 2
Georgia 4 Southern Cal 2
William & Mary 2 Texas 2