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Dennis Nevolo Profile Part 2

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part profile on senior men’s tennis standout Dennis Nevolo. You can find the full article online at DailyIllini.com.

No other sport is quite like tennis. There’s a feeling of isolation because there are only two people on the court. With the distance between the two players, there’s essentially no trash talking. No one else is to blame if a mistake is made. That’s the reason why staying strong mentally is so important.

Anybody who spends time around Illinois men’s tennis senior Dennis Nevolo knows that he can sometimes live in his own world, which to outsiders may seem like he’s not focusing. He knows he lives in it and accepts it, and so do his teammates and coaches. His teammates quickly picked up on it one day while in the weight room during his freshman year. Nevolo picked a weight up off the ground and put his hand up against a mirrored wall for balance. The strength trainer saw the handprint impression it left and handed Nevolo solution to clean it up. As he started wiping, he subconsciously put his other hand against the wall again, prompting an “Are you kidding me?” from the trainer.

Parking his car is a story in and of itself. Teammates used to post pictures to Facebook making fun of how poor his parking jobs can be.

“My parking job has improved tremendously over the years,” Nevolo joked. “After seeing some of the pictures, I made sure I parked the car correctly. It has improved, so don’t worry.”

Living in his own world has also been beneficial. His close friend Riley Hoff-Larocca said he went up to Nevolo after a match saying that his opponent reminded him of another tennis player.

“I told him: ‘Did you see his serve? He looks exactly the same,’” Hoff-Larocca said. Nevolo’s reply: “To be honest, I didn’t pay attention to anything he did in between points at all because he was trying to make it a mental battle. He was trying to rile me up, so I just blocked out everything he did.”

“There’s times where his air-headedness is kinda like, ‘What is going on?’” Hoff-Larocca said. “It also works to his advantage as far as making good decisions.”

***

Mental toughness is starting to come into play in this April 22 match against Purdue’s Mark Kovacs. Fatigue is setting in for both players, and mental mistakes can make the difference in the match. Nevolo has the first serve and wins the first game, but Kovacs responds to make it 1-1. The next game goes to 40-40 quickly, as neither player can convert once he gets the advantage. Nevolo keeps grinding. Kovacs keeps pounding. Nevolo eventually squeaks out a hard-fought win in the game, seemingly giving him the momentum. But Kovacs knows by now this match is far from over and that he can hang in with the higher-ranked player.

Kovacs responds by holding serve before both players do again. It’s another dogfight at 3-3, and Kovacs has nothing to lose. With the match drawing closer to an end, whoever wins the game puts himself in a great position to win the match. He will have all the momentum, as the two go into deuce after deuce after deuce. But the always-persistent Nevolo squeaks by and go up 4-3. He’s got Kovacs down on the scoreboard and overthinking the next game. The wind finally starts to behave as Nevolo breaks Kovacs’ serve. The score is suddenly 5-3. Kovacs know he’s beaten. Nevolo rolls in the final game to pick up the victory.

***

Matches like these have become common. Either Nevolo plays one of the seven players in the nation ranked higher than him or he plays somebody looking to knock him off and pull off a big upset. Nevolo finished second at the ITA National Indoors tournament in November, losing only to Virginia’s Mitchell Frank, who is currently ranked No. 1. He’s always expected to perform, and anything less than a win at times seems implausible for a team that depends on him so much. He’s dealt with the expectations by posting a 14-5 record in the dual season.

“I know he feels a lot of pressure all the time,” Illinois head coach Dancer said. “His teammates certainly expect him to be a win every time and that’s not easy. … He’s having to take everybody’s best shot every time out on the court and his record he’s had this year, is indicative of what a great player he is and what a great leader he’s been for us.”

But he’s used to it by now. He played in the top three singles spots as a freshman, and over the last three seasons he’s played almost exclusively at the No. 1 spot. The hard work has helped him earn 112-52 singles record — good for the sixth-most wins in school history and a .683 winning percentage.

“You never wanna label or put too much pressure on a guy, but he’s been the program,” Dancer said. “He’s been the face of the program for four years in a row. He’s one of the few guys on any national team that’s come in and played No. 1 or 2 all the way throughout. It’s such a difficult transition to do that.”

Though without a national or conference title, Nevolo has no regrets about his time at Illinois and said, “It’s the journey that brings the happiness, not the destination.” He admitted that he wished the program had more stability at times, but he is confident it is heading in the right direction. The next two seasons the team will boast solid recruiting classes largely composed of players from the Midwest, highlighted next season by Jared Hiltzik, who is currently ranked No. 4 by tennisrecruiting.net.

“It’s an unbelievable program, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Nevolo said. “As the culture keeps building now, it’s gonna be really exciting over these next few years.”

Nevolo will try competing on the professional level next year, though there’s still Big Tens and the NCAA tournament on the horizon. He’s played in multiple Challengers — tournaments used to gain ATP points — in the past and is currently ranked 1,858th in the world. He hasn’t won a match since last October, but he hasn’t played poorly by any means either. In his most recent match, a clay court decision against No. 434 Petru-Alexandru Luncanu, Nevolo had to retire in the third set after splitting the first two.

The potential Nevolo has is as good as any former Illini despite standing a modest 5-foot-10 — small compared to many professionals. What will ultimately determine his success on the next level is his serve. All the top players in the world use it — not only to pick up easy points but to still put themselves in a spot to win a point if they don’t pick up a quick ace.

“His serve — it’s not a liability — it’s just not as much of a weapon as it needs to be for him to win at the next level,” Dancer said. “From a footwork and balance and speed and racket play and everything else, he can do that. He needs more experience, his serve is gonna have to get better, and he’s gonna have to know his game really well.”

If anybody knows what it takes to transition to the professional circuit, it’s Kevin Anderson. The former Illini is ranked No. 32 in the world and used to play practice sets with Nevolo when he first enrolled at the University.

“It would always be really close,” Anderson said. Upon seeing him play during an April 1 visit, Anderson believes Nevolo just needs to learn how he wants to use his serve.

“I hit with him almost once a year for the last few years, and I’ve seen big improvements with (his serve) each time,” Anderson said. “It’s more sort of tweaking here and there, finding better placement, better consistency, finding out how you want to use a serve. … He’s not gonna have a massive serve just because of his height and stuff, but he can definitely have an effective serve, especially if he continues to learn how to use it.”

Placing expectations on a young tennis player is unfair to say the least. They’re like horses competing for the Triple Crown: The favorites usually do well, but sometimes flop; and at other times, one will come out of nowhere and steal the spotlight. Anderson falls in the latter category, while former Illini Amer Delic falls into the other. Delic, who won the 2003 NCAA Singles Championship, dealt with injury setbacks after reaching a ranking as high as No. 60 in the world. It will largely be up to Nevolo to determine his fate, as he must continue to grow both physically and mentally.

“If he stays on that path, we can be watching him in the U.S. Open,” Dancer said. “You have to play so hard every point in professional tennis, so you have to get used to playing that physically hard and then not panicking.”

***

After the match is over, Dancer, who had been watching and coaching Nevolo for most of the match, goes and congratulates and encourages him. By all means this was a hard-fought match, as the Illini end up defeating the Boilermakers 5-2 overall. Nevolo credits Kovacs for his valiant effort afterward, saying they each played well at certain points despite the heavy winds. The difference came down to Nevolo being more aggressive in the tiebreaker and the end.

“I just kinda remembered at All-Americans it was really windy,” Nevolo said. “My focus was just spin the serve as hard as you can. … Once I kinda simplified my game, I got a lot more calm.”

In the end, Nevolo let the home fans see him win for possibly the final time.

“So many memories go through your mind while you’re playing,” Nevolo said. “I was happy I was able to buckle down and keep things simple in the end.”

“I’ll definitely be back,” he added.

But there’s still work to be done, starting with the Big Ten Tournament in a week, followed by the NCAA tournament. It won’t be easy, but Nevolo wouldn’t have it any other way.

Story and media via The Daily Illini

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 bytennisrecruiting.net, 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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