Dennis Nevolo Profile

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part profile on senior men’s tennis standout Dennis Nevolo. You can find part two in Friday’s paper.

Today is a windy day, there’s no other way around it. NCAA rules mandate that the April 22 tennis match between Illinois and Purdue will have to be moved indoors if there are consistent winds above 20 mph. If the wind isn’t that strong, it’s at least 18 or 19 mph.

These aren’t the conditions senior Dennis Nevolo was hoping for. Few, if any, tennis players hope for winds like these. But it’s not like he hasn’t had to deal with difficult conditions, both on and off the court, in the past.

This will probably be his last match at the Atkins Tennis Center as a collegiate player unless the Illini can pull off a victory at next week’s Big Ten Championships. If there’s ever a time to win, it’s today. He says he’s feeling good, though he and doubles teammate Roy Kalmanovich fall to start off the match. The Illini have already won the point, however, and have a decisive advantage for the rest of the match.

During the break before singles play, Nevolo and Kalmanovich receive a cookie cake for their four years of dedication on this senior day. But enough about recognizing the seniors. It’s time to take care of business, and Purdue’s top dog, Mark Kovacs, is all that stands in his way.

Making of the man

Nevolo was born to play this game. He had an interest in playing baseball growing up, but only when he had the bat in his hands. He hated playing in the field. When he tagged along with his father and brother to the tennis courts one day, something clicked. He remembers hitting tennis balls against his garage and going to the video store and renting tapes of great tennis matches of the past that he’d watch on an almost continuous loop.

As he got older, he started to gain national recognition. He had won the national championship by the age of 12, and at 16 he won the Illinois state title as a sophomore at Warren Township High School — without losing a set. That’s when the colleges started calling. For a while, it seemed like Florida would sign him, but Illinois head coach Brad Dancer did what no other coach did: He gave Nevolo a detailed plan on how he would be developed over the next four years. The Gurnee, Ill., native, who was ranked No. 3 nationally in his class, would stay in his home state and play for Dancer and the Illini.

“I’m a tennis nut and I just saw that Brad was very similar,” Nevolo said. “I just felt the dedication and knowledge and the plan he had. I thought that was really impressive.”

Though he didn’t expect the transition to playing college tennis to be easy, Nevolo immediately made an impact with Illinois. The superlatives started to roll in after a 28-13 first season, including Big Ten Freshman of the Year, ITA Midwest Region Rookie of the Year and All-Big Ten honors. He would finish the season ranked No. 43 but reached a ranking as high as No. 33. The team would lose in the Sweet 16, however, and after the singles and doubles championships were over, his first year was in the books.

The team still figured to be in good shape for the future with just two seniors on the roster. But that wasn’t the case for Nevolo and the Illini, as three players left the program. Roy Kalmanovich didn’t feel like he was contributing to the team, while Waylon Chin transferred schools. Just like that, the 28 dual-season wins from that team would not be returning. Freshman Ruan Roelofse, Nevolo’s roommate and doubles partner, became the fourth player to leave the program when he returned to his native South Africa to play professionally, raising further concerns over the future of the program. Still, Nevolo said he never even thought about leaving.

“That was really tough for me because I’m such a team guy,” Nevolo said. “But if you’re not dedicated or motivated, you can’t contribute.”

Taking on Purdue

Purdue has a diverse roster. Of its seven players, six are from outside the United States. Kovacs, Nevolo’s opponent this day, is no exception. The Hungarian is the perfect foil to Nevolo. Kovacs, a sophomore, relies on heavy, strong swings and tries to get free points off his serve, while the experienced Nevolo is more of a grinder who looks to exploit his opponents for mistakes. Nevolo is a homegrown product and gives up four inches in height and nearly 30 pounds to the foreigner.

The match begins with Kovacs serving. From the very start it looks like this will take a while, with each player unwilling to concede a single point without earning it. Kovacs tries to pound each one of his shots with enough force that Nevolo can’t keep up with it, while Nevolo use a lot more finesse, trying to figure out the wind that is gusting at times well above 30 mph. Both players hold serve to make it 1-1 before Kovacs holds again to make it 2-1. The next game isn’t as kind to Nevolo, as Kovacs breaks him to go up 3-1. Nevolo suddenly starts yelling at himself. Kovacs holds serve again and Nevolo bounces his racket off the ground in passive frustration. This isn’t how senior day was supposed to go.

“It’s really tough to play in these conditions, and that’s all I’m gonna say,” Nevolo said only half kiddingly after the game.

But Nevolo responds by showing why he’s ranked No. 8 in the country, serving to win the next game and then getting his break back before serving again to make it 4-4. It was only a matter of time. The pair each hold serve until it’s 6-6 and time for a tiebreaker. It’s anybody’s set to win, and Nevolo has more of the momentum. He wins the tiebreaker 7-2 and takes the first set.

Switching it up

With a suddenly shorthanded roster, Dancer needed to make major changes. Johnny Hamui, a junior, transferred from Florida, while four freshmen — Bruno Abdelnour, Stephen Hoh, Brian Alden and KU Singh — were brought in. The season went fairly well for Illinois, which finished with 20-11 record but fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Nevolo was an All-Big Ten selection for the second straight year after going 27-17 overall and 16-12 in the dual season, but he was still unhappy with his play.

“I feel like that was by far my least productive year,” Nevolo said. “I missed a lot of matches. … I felt like I had bronchitis almost the entire season. I just lost a lot of confidence. A lot of it was physical, and then mentally it just destroyed me at the end of it.”

The next season, for a while, things got harder. Though he was ranked in the top 15 for most of the early part of the season, a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia sidelined Nevolo for five matches. The condition isn’t normally life-threatening, but it causes dizziness and occasionally a loss of consciousness. He elected to have surgery in which a part of the heart was burned off.

After it was completed, Nevolo had to gradually improve his fitness. At first, he was only capable of exercising about 15 minutes before becoming fatigued — easier said than done for somebody rising through the rankings after previously beating two players ranked No. 1 in the country. It wasn’t easy for him to hear that he wasn’t allowed to play, especially considering that he said he’s always within 35 feet of a racket whenever he’s not in class.

“If I don’t play for a few days, even now, I’m like a little kid,” Nevolo said. “I’ll just pick up my racket, swinging it around my house.”

Day by day the conditioning came back, and by the end of the year Nevolo was back on top of his game. He finished the year 29-14 overall and earned All-Big Ten status yet again. But the highlight came after the team’s season was over at the NCAA Singles Championships. In a field of 64, Nevolo rolled through his first two opponents before eventually falling to Henrique Cunha of Duke in three sets. The tournament run was good enough to earn Nevolo All-American status, and his banner proudly hangs at the Atkins Tennis Center among Illini greats of the past.

The team was about to go through another overhaul, however, as Alden and Singh would also leave the program with the three graduating seniors.

Facing the unknown

Kovacs responds in the second set and appears determined to make this last as long as it can. The wind doesn’t seem to have any effect on him. Nevolo is still trying to figure out how to use it to his advantage while neutralizing Kovacs. Nevolo has seen this from his opponents before: Players like Kovacs have nothing to lose and try to simply overpower him.

Each time Nevolo is able to force a break point, Kovacs responds or Nevolo simply misses. Kovacs is trying to hit through the wind instead of using it to enhance his chances of scoring points. The misses add up, and eventually Kovacs wins 6-4. Nevolo is broken just once in the set. But he’s been through this before. Just two days earlier at Indiana, he lost the second set against Isade Juneau before rolling in the third.

All he has to do is stay calm.

Story and media via The Daily Illini

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