“I can’t think of anything better to say than great job,” head men’s tennis coach Sam Winterbotham said. “The guys came in focused and they matched Illinois’ intensity. We’ve told them all year that one of the keys to this year is playing to win. You have to go out and win matches. You can’t wait for good teams like Illinois to give you matches because they won’t. I’m proud of the guys for buying into this concept and playing some great tennis today.
UT senior All-America Kaden Hensel clinched the match for UT with a three-set victory over Ruben Gonzales at the No. 1 position. Hensel won the first set 7-5 and opened up a 2-0 in the second set but Gonzales battled back to win the set 6-4. In the third set, Hensel had leads of 2-0 and then 5-3 but the Illini senior was not going down without a fight and Gonzales eventually forced a third set tiebreaker. The tiebreaker was all Hensel though as the Australia native clinched UT's first win over a top-10 opponent since the Vols defeated fifth-ranked Florida 4-3 in March 2006.
“It was obviously a big win for Kaden,” associate head coach Chris Woodruff said. “Kaden’s had some trouble in the past in tiebreakers and I think he’s made too much out of it in his own head. All I told him today was fast feet and good acceleration with your racquet hand. I think he focused on that and not his past tiebreaker experiences. I’m very happy and proud of him. We needed him to come up big and he did. That was one of the best tiebreakers he’s ever played at Tennessee.”
The Vols got off to a good start by capturing the doubles point. Freshmen Matteo Fago and Jeremy Tweedt defeated Waylon Chin and Marc Spicijaric, 8-4 at the No. 3 doubles for UT’s first victory. Brandon Davis and Ruben Gonzales of Illinois defeated Boris Conkic and Davey Sandgren, 8-6 at No. 2 doubles so the match would come down to both teams best doubles tandems. At No. 1 doubles, neither team could break the others serve but with the score 8-7 in favor of UT, Kaden Hensel and J.P. Smith finally were able to break the Illini serve to win the match and give UT an early 1-0 lead.
Sandgren extended UT’s lead to two with a come-from-behind victory over Spicijaric at No. 4 singles. The UT sophomore dropped the first set 6-1 but reversed the score in the second to set up the final set. In the third and final set, Sandgren dominated to win going away 1-6, 6-1, 6-2. The Gallatin, Tenn., native is now 6-0 this season in dual-match singles.
Smith gave Tennessee a 3-0 lead with a come-from-behind victory at No. 2 singles. The UT freshman dropped the first set to Rowe in a tiebreaker. In the final two sets though Smith was able to maintain serve and break Rowe’s serve to win 6-7, 6-4, 6-3.
The Illini made the final score look close with wins at No. 3,5 and 6 singles. Conkic lost at No. 3 singles to 70th-ranked Billy Heiser 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. Chin defeated Fago at No. 5 singles 1-6, 7-5, 1-0(10-8) and Abe Souza defeated Chris Racz 6-3 to end the scoring for Illinois.
“I have to thank the crowd that came out on Super Bowl Sunday,” Winterbotham said. “They embraced what college tennis is about and gave us an atmosphere similar to a basketball game. The guys had a lot of fun playing in front of them.”
Tennessee travels to the Bluegrass state next weekend to take on Louisville and Kentucky. Live stats can be found at UTsports.com.
|No. 24 Tennessee 4, No. 8 Illinois 3|
|1. Kaden Hensel (UT) def. Ruben Gonzales (UI)||7-5, 4-6, 7-6(1)*|
|2. No. 93 J.P. Smith (UT) def. No. 15 Ryan Rowe (UI)||6-7(4), 6-4, 6-3|
|3. No. 70 Billy Heiser (UI) def. No. 28 Boris Conkic (UT)||6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3|
|4. Davey Sandgren (UT) def. Marc Spicijaric (UI)||1-6, 6-1, 6-2|
|5. Waylon Chin (UI) def. Matteo Fago (UT)||1-6, 7-5, 1-0 (10-8)|
|6. Abe Souza (UI) def. Chris Racz (UT)||6-3|
|Order of Finish: 4,2,1,3,6,5|
|1. Hensel/Smith (UT) def. No. 36 Heiser/Rowe (UI)||9-7|
|2. Davis/Gonzales (UT) def. Conkic/Sandgren (UT)||8-6|
|3. Fago/Tweedt (UT) def. Chin/Spicijaric (UT)||8-4|
|Order of Finish: 2,3,1|