The match score was 3-2 in favor of the Illini as the entire Illinois roster gathered around freshman Gabrielius Guzauskas’ Court 5 battle against North Carolina’s Henry Lieberman. Just two matches remained, but the Illini need a victory in just one to clinch a victory over the then-No. 22 North Carolina Tar Heels on Feb. 20 at Atkins Tennis Center.
With his match knotted at 5-5 in the third set, Guzauskas remained calm while knowing that the fate of his team was in his hands.
“In that situation I always try to stay calm,” Guzauskas said. “When the team came over, I tried to not let it affect my game. I just try to focus on my match and not focus on what my teammates are doing during big pressure moments. “
Guzauskas clinched the match for the Illini, winning two straight games in front of his teammates. A big moment for the freshman, it will not be his last di lui as an Illini. Head coach Brad Dancer sees a bright future for Guzauskas at Illinois.
“We are incredibly excited about what we can do in the future with these guys,” Dancer said. “It’s really just about building habits and putting the right other people around them. If we can do that, it’s going to be a really great future here, with Gabe being a big cornerstone in that. “
Guzauskas has come into a young Illini team with big shoes to fill. With Illinois losing four seniors from last year’s Big Ten Championship-winning roster, Guzauskas was brought in to continue the team’s dominance. Sitting at 2-5 in singles this season, Guzauskas is holding his own on Court 5 and Court 6 for this Illini roster. Coming into as tough of a schedule as this Illinois team has and putting up solid performances as a freshman is no small feat.
Although the young star is having a promising start to his tennis career in his first collegiate season, it wasn’t always this easy for him. Adjusting to Illinois after online school and years of training in Florida proved to be tougher than he first thought.
“Last semester I had trouble with my tennis,” Guzauskas said. “When I got here, I was nervous. There was a lot going on in my head. As time went on, my tennis got back up to a good level. Now, I’m happy where I am. I just have to get better and keep pushing. “
What has really helped Guzauskas settle in at Illinois is the bond he shares with Dancer. The pair has known each other for around four years now, and they have continued growing this relationship ever since they met. Guzauskas and Dancer talk a lot off the court, often not even about tennis.
“When y ou think about Gabe, you think about going out to coffee with him just to sit down and talk about life,” Dancer said. “Lately he’s been opening up to me even more. He’s a special young man, with a strong affinity for his family and certain core values that I think align with mine as a person. I just think that there’s a good connection there in terms of how we see life. “
With conference play less than a month away, the Illini will start to rely on Guzauskas more and more. Guzauskas is a key piece not only in the future of this Illinois roster but also in the present. His consistency of him is needed if the Illini will look to repeat and surpass the successes of last season. Clinching the match against UNC was a big step for Guzauskas as such a young player, but he sees the match as a stepping stone for the team, not the end goal.
“We have to let this match motivate us more moving forward,” Guzauskas said. “It’s just the beginning. We still have a lot of work to do. “