VUKIC VALUES Aleks Vukic has had a great individual season, but for the Illinois junior, it's all about the TEAM

One wouldn’t blame Aleks Vukic for taking a moment to bask in the limelight.

The only player in the country to hold wins over the current No. 1 (Cameron Norrie, TCU) and No. 2 (Mikael Torpegaard, Ohio State) nationally-ranked players, the Illinois junior is having what men’s tennis head coach Brad Dancer calls “one of the best seasons ever put together by a guy at Illinois.”

Riding a 21-match win streak, Vukic is an impressive 22-1 in dual matches on the season and has vaulted into the No. 3 national singles ranking. The high-profile victories and win streak propelled Vukic to being named Big Ten Athlete of the Year in men’s tennis, and a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten Conference selection.

The wins and awards are nice, but are not on the forefront of Vukic’s mind.

“I don’t strive for individual accolades, but I’m happy to achieve them.”

“I don’t strive for individual accolades, but I’m happy to achieve them.”

The sole focus for Vukic is on the team.

With four freshmen in the Illini lineup, Vukic has stepped into a leadership role and based on his win-loss record, is certainly doing his best to lead by example. He’s helped guide the Fighting Illini back into the NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championship Round of 16, thanks to last week’s road win at No. 11 Oklahoma State, where Illinois battled back from a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3. Illinois is the only unseeded team remaining in the field.

“It definitely feels good to be in Athens,” said Vukic, following his team’s practice in the beginning of the week. “We were able to pull through against a tough Oklahoma State team; our freshmen really came up big for us. We are really happy to be here, but definitely hungry for more.”

Dancer said that playing on the road was good for his young team.

“It was a different territory for us to be in,” said Dancer. “We’ve hosted first and second round matches 10 out of the 12 years I’ve coached here. It was new and refreshing to be on the road. In the past, we’ve been the team’s that hunted in the first two rounds, and now this year, we were hunting. It was a good mindset for the guys to get into.”

In Thursday’s Round of 16, Illinois will go up against No. 6 TCU, winners of the Big 12 regular-season and tournament championships, and riding a 16-match winning streak. The two teams tangled early in the 2017 dual-match season, with TCU claiming a 5-2 victory. Vukic did account for one of his team’s two points in the loss, as he defeated Norrie in three sets (third set was a 10-point tiebreak).

A native of Sydney, Australia, Vukic knows that it’ll take a complete team effort to take down the Horned Frogs.

“We’re going to have to have six guys ready to play doubles, and six guys ready to play singles,” said Vukic. “We have to rely on everyone and find a way to score four points before they do.”

The Illinois-TCU match will also likely feature a Vukic-Norrie rematch at No. 1 singles, in what could be a preview of a late-round showdown the following week when the NCAA national singles championship tournament gets underway.

“Knowing Cam, he’ll want some revenge and I’ll be ready for that,” said Vukic. “We’ve played each other quite a few times. It was good to get that win against him, even with the super-breaker. I’m expecting another high-level match.”

As he’s proven already in 2017 with his wins over Norrie and Torpegaard, Vukic does have a penchant for rising to the level of his competition.

“In the biggest matches, he does find that extra gear,” said Dancer.

Preparation is the key to success, and Vukic is a self-professed practice nut. He’s certainly impressed his coach with his tireless work ethic.

“We spend so much time together on the court, probably 90 minutes a day and run through a gamut of things that he wants to get through,” said Dancer. “Everyone’s game starts with the mind and he’s so calm and relaxed and plays with tremendous energy. You look at his skill set, and his transition game has improved immensely and that was a challenge the coaching staff put to him. His defense has improved out of both corners.”

For Vukic, every practice session serves a purpose.

“Everyone’s different, but for me, I like to get on the court a lot more than others,” said Vukic. “I like to get myself going and work on the shots that I need and I have a clear vision of what I want to do; I want my practices to get me ready for what I’m going to need when it comes time for the match.”

While Vukic has put in extra time on the court, he’s made sure to balance his time with is studies as a finance major.

“It’s cliché, but it’s true; he’s the total package,” said Dancer. “All of the things he does from a leadership standpoint, to his work on the court and his studies, it’s all a credit to his intelligence. He’s putting in six-to-seven hours a day between classes and studying, and with all that, he’s putting together this season on the court that’s been outstanding and special.”

So, as Vukic heads into these final weeks of the 2017 college tennis season, his vision will remain the same as it has all season, and that’s on what is directly in front of him.

“I focus more on who I’m playing, rather than what’s in the future,” said Vukic. “In college tennis, you can’t take anything for granted. With the individual tournament, all of the top guys in the country can play and you can’t overlook anyone and have to play your best each match.”

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Dan Johnson
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