CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — It was a moment straight out of a movie for Zeke Clark and the Illinois men’s tennis team. Clark was the player standing and with the championship on the line, he scored four straight points to clinch the Big Ten title over Ohio State.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Clark said. “That moment yesterday was five years the work for me, and to beat them in such a big moment means the world.”
“More than anything it was a fairy tale ending to a Big Ten season where he’s just willed this team along,” Illinois head coach Brad Dancer said.
Clark was up at 6 a.m. that morning, trying to bounce back from his first singles loss of the season a day earlier. He lost in two sets to Michigan, but brought the Illini to their first win over the Buckeyes in six years. Ironically enough, the last time it happened was also for the conference tournament championship.
“It’s just this personality of striving, and non-stop energy,” Dancer said. “He’s one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever been around, and for him to have that moment is why I got emotional.”
Dancer was in tears during an interview on the Big Ten Network, at a loss for words. Long, physical matches are nothing new for Clark though, who was named the Big Ten tournament MVP. The senior also clinched wins over No. 1 USC and No. 3 Virginia earlier this season, something he says wouldn’t have been possible previously in his career.
“I feel like it’s been part of my maturation process the last five years, just putting those emotions aside and focusing on my game,” Clark added.
They’re moments that made it well worth the time and effort to come back for a fifth year. Clark reached 100 career singles victories this season as well, but his fairy tale is far from over, with the NCAA tournament starting later this week. The Illini are the No. 16 seed and will face DePaul in their opening round match. Notre Dame and Western Michigan are the other two teams coming to town in the four-team pod that runs May 7-9.