Khlif rallies to clinch first-round victory | Sports | #sports | #elderly | #seniors
URBANA — Noe Khlif was fairly certain he wasn’t going to get a chance to finish off his singles match against DePaul’s Fran Tonejc early Friday evening during the first round of the NCAA tournament at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.
Not the way his Illinois men’s tennis teammates started their singles matches after dropping the doubles point to the Blue Demons. Hunter Heck jumped all over DePaul’s Luuk Wassenaar in the first set. So did Siphosothando Montsi and Zeke Clark for the Illini in their matches.
Khlif, meanwhile, fell behind early before getting locked in a back-and-forth affair with Tonejc. But the Illinois senior rallied to win the first set and then turned it on in the second, though, for a 7-6, 6-2 victory at No. 6 singles that clinched a 4-1 win for the Illini and sent them on to a 1 p.m. Saturday showdown with Notre Dame with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
“I had a tough start,” Khlif said. “It was tough conditions, but I was able to turn it around. I really didn’t think I would be able to to finish my match, but somehow I did. I played a pretty solid second set, so I got better throughout the match and was pretty happy about that. Being able to clinch was also a good feeling.”
Khlif did a little bit of scoreboard watching during breaks in his match with Tonejc. He saw Heck become the first Illini to clinch a first-set victory. Montsi, Clark and Aleks Kovacevic followed.
“Sometimes you can check the scoreboard, but you can also feel the energy from the bench and your teammates around,” Khlif said. “You kind of have a feel for how the team is doing. When you see your teammates are doing well, it gives you some extra energy.”
Illinois coach Brad Dancer didn’t see any significant changes in the way Khlif played as he mounted his singles comeback. The native of Marseille, France simply stayed the course. He didn’t let a few bad bounces bog him down.
“He’s become more mature, more courageous, in terms of how he plays,” Dancer said. “(Friday) was just another good example of that. Getting down, you could see that he wants to let the score bother him — that’s kind of a habit — but he’s gotten better at handling score disappointments and focusing on the task at hand.
“That’s what I really liked about his match. I thought he did the right things from the very beginning. He had an unlucky bounce here or things didn’t go his way, and he never deviated from the course. When you stay the course and you’re the stronger player, then over time the match shifts in terms of your favor.”
The 4-1 victory against DePaul extended Illinois’ winning streak to 18 straight matches. The Illini (22-2) haven’t lost since Feb. 21 at home to Ohio State. In the interim, they won the Big Ten West division title, a Big Ten tournament championship against the aforementioned Buckeyes and, now, their first-round match in the NCAA tournament.
“We won the Big Ten — we’ve been chasing for it for years now,” Khlif said. “It was very exciting, but we’ve got to stay focused. We’ve got to be focused on the NCAAs. Everybody’s feeling well and feeling confident, so we’ve just got to stay focused on what we have to do and use that momentum to make a deep run.”
Notre Dame (15-10) is up next for Illinois after topping Western Michigan 4-1 during Friday’s other first-round match. The Irish are a team Dancer tries to schedule every season given he’s friends with coach Ryan Sachire and likes how they compete.
Illinois and Notre Dame didn’t play this season after the Illini jumped into a Big Ten-only schedule following the ITA National indoor championships, but Dancer knows what to expect from the Irish.
“They compete their tails off,” the Illinois coach said. “We know everything that they’re going to bring. They’re going to be super, super aggressive in doubles, and they’re going to have great players and be well-coached. They’re going to try to expose our weaknesses, and we’re going to try to figure out what we can do to expose theirs. But it is going to be an absolute war (Saturday). There’s no question.”
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).