No Clear Path
March 18, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Illinois men's tennis coach Brad Dancer admits that for many elite junior tennis players, competing in college can be tough to adapt to. Often times some of the elite recruits will come from backgrounds where as Dancer says, "they have been catered to and have had lots of one-on-one attention." In the case of Ryan Rowe, a talented product out of Iowa-Florida-Illinois residency, Dancer knew he had to give Rowe a little extra attention prior to his arrival in Champaign.
Initially, Rowe was recruited to Illinois by then-head coach Craig Tiley and then-assistant Bruce Berque, who were fresh off a 2003 NCAA national championship. According to Rowe, it wasn't a tough sale.
"Illinois was always number one for me," he said. "It was everything I wanted and I knew a lot of the guys coming in. I saw the players they had developed and knew that was the once place I wanted to go."
But little did Rowe know there would soon be several changes that might end up affecting his decision to attend Illinois.
In 2004, Berque left to become the head coach at the Michigan. Tiley brought in Dancer as Berque's replacement and sent him down to Florida, where Rowe was currently residing.
"Once I got to Illinois that fall, Ryan was still not enrolled," Dancer said. "So I spent a few days in Florida with him to nurture that relationship and get him acclimated to the changes Craig and I were making."
Following the meeting, Rowe was still convinced Illinois was the school for him. During the 2004-05 season, Rowe won his first three collegiate matches and played the majority of his freshman year at the No. 5 and 6 singles spots with a 7-3 record.
Despite a winning record in singles play and a 13-5 mark in doubles competition, which included an undefeated 8-0 effort in conference action, Dancer believes Rowe felt a "shock to the system" in his first year and had a tough time finding his place on the team.
To add to that "shock" as a freshman, Rowe and the rest of the team were taken back when Tiley resigned his position in Champaign for a tennis development role in Australia.
Now, Rowe found himself at a school where the two coaches that heavily recruited him had now left.
At that point, he needed reassurance. He needed a partner.
And he got both.
In June of 2005, Dancer was promoted to head coach and that fall, Rowe was paired with teammate Kevin Anderson in doubles play - a partnership that turned out to be a very successful one.
"I think Ryan's sophomore year was one where he was really starting to come into his own," Dancer said. "We paired him with Kevin and it was just one of those combinations where the chemistry clicked over time and really seemed to work."
Did it ever.
While Rowe completed his sophomore campaign with a 31-6 singles record - one of only two on the team to eclipse the 30-win plateau - he partnered with Anderson to make up the nation's top-ranked doubles team. Throughout the season the pair went 12-0 against ranked opponents, which included victories over 2005 NCAA doubles pair of John Isner and Antonio Ruiz of Georgia and then-No. 1 Scott Green and Ross Wilson of Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament final. Entering the NCAA Doubles Championship as the No. 4 seed, the Anderson/Rowe pairing stormed through the field and claimed the national title, becoming only the third Illini doubles tandem to win the NCAA doubles crown. They finished the season 23-1.
"We were really upset about losing the team title," Rowe said of the team's heartbreaking 4-2 decision to defending NCAA champ UCLA in the 2006 semifinals. "Kevin and I came out there and felt we needed to do some damage. At first I didn't realize what we had just done. It was like, 'Oh, we just won.' Then we realized it was something special."
The two thought it was so special that they would try again last season.
In fact, the Anderson/Rowe pairing advanced to its second straight NCAA doubles final, which marked the first time the same tandem made consecutive appearances in the finals in 40 years.
It is a distinction that Rowe says means something to him, but then again, is really no big deal either.
"I think first of all it shows Kevin and I play good tennis together and we can play consistently, so we were honored that we were able to accomplish it," he said. "But it was also just another tournament for us."
It wasn't just another season for Rowe, however. He finished the year ranked 19th nationally at No. 2 singles and No. 5 in doubles. He earned his first All-America honor in singles competition and second in doubles, and was an NCAA All-Tournament selection at No. 2 singles. He was 29-10 overall in singles and had a 31-10 mark in doubles play.
For Dancer, the progression of Rowe's career made an impression on him at the end of the 2007 campaign.
"The best tennis I have seen him play was last year at NCAAs," Dancer said. "He was able to detach himself from whether he was going to win or lose and focus on performance and attitude. That ultimately got him better results."
Now as a senior, Rowe has approached this season in a different manner. Throughout his career in Champaign, the team has seen the likes of Chris Martin, Ryler DeHeart and GD Jones serve in the key leadership role. On a 12-member team made up of eight underclassmen, Rowe knows that his role has changed.
"I think this year I feel like I am in more of a leadership role," he said. "I can see the freshmen and sophomores looking up to me and I try to do the best I can to help them on the team. I try to lead by example."
And so far, that example has been an impressive one.
During the fall season, Rowe was ranked No. 9 nationally and posted an 11-4 record overall. He defeated four ranked players en route to the ITA National Indoor Championship final, where he fell to No. 1 Somdev Devvarman of Virginia. Currently he is 19-11 overall and has won four straight matches, including seven of his last 10.
"I certainly think Ryan has approached this season in a different manner," Dancer said. "He has done a great job in becoming more consistent as a practice player and in his attitude. And he has not done that for selfish reasons, but more so as a model for the team."
Dancer goes on to say that his senior has also become better at managing himself on the court. Off the court he says he has a "tremendous heart for other people," and a sensitive side that people don't often see. He is also close to his rather large family, which includes three other siblings.
Rowe grew up in Iowa and moved to Florida when he was 12. Years later he moved to Moline, Ill. Looking back, it was the move to Champaign that Rowe enjoyed the most.
"Illinois has been a great time for me," he said. "I came in with five guys, made some great friends over the years, and obviously grown as a person."
Rowe, a speech communications major, is hoping to play professionally following graduation.
"Each day I work as hard as I can to improve my game," he said. "You have to able to compete out there and there is no clear path to take to get there."
Then again, after stops in three different states and being coached by two different mentors, Rowe has shown there is no clear path to success in college tennis either.
But clearly he found it.