Feb. 13, 2004
Senior Phil Stolt is a key member of the Illinois reigning NCAA Champion men's tennis team, a squad that captured its second consecutive ITA National Indoor Championship on February 8th. At the ITA event he teamed with fellow senior Brian Wilson to help clinch the doubles point for the Illini. In the quarterfinals of the tournament, Stolt scored a big win over Duke's Ludovic Walter who was ranked No. 7 in the country. The win marked his second consecutive victory over a top-30 opponent. Last year Stolt reached a No. 2 singles ranking during a season in which he rattled off 12 consecutive match wins, won the ITA Midwest Regional singles championship, and the Illini finished 32-0. Here is how Phil answered some of our questions about completing a perfect season, an invitation to the White House, and making a comeback.
Over the past few years Illinois has lost several key players to graduation and professional tennis, and yet the team continues to win and even get better. What is the secret to the team's success?
I think it comes from the institution and then mainly the coaches. They really pride themselves on good recruiting and bringing in people who want to work hard and who have aspirations to play professionally. So, even though we'll lose a good player who left to play professionally, we have players that can step up to take their place, and players who want to keep winning. When we leave, we'll have new guys ready to take our spots and keep the tradition going.
How did you and the team stay focused through an undefeated season last year?
You know, the funny thing about that is we never once talked about it. It was never a goal of ours at the beginning of the season. For us, after the last year at NCAAs, when we lost in the quarterfinals (2002), our goal was just to get back to nationals, to do our best and improve. But it never once came up in the locker room before or during a match, and we never said, 'Let's keep the streak alive.' Every time, after a tough match, we would go to practice the next day to go back to the drawing board and see what we could do better. Our focus was just to improve.
The team got an invitation to the White House last November, can you tell me a little bit about your trip to D.C.?
That was an amazing experience First we flew out in the morning on a chartered jet, which was a very unique experience for all of us. We took a bus to the White House and then got a one hour tour where we saw a lot of different rooms and everything. There were seven other teams there who had also been national champions, and we were with them when the President greeted each team, we shook hands and got to say a few words. The he gave about a 20 or 25 minute speech on Division I Athletics, which was just really awesome that the President would take about an hour out of his day to talk about college athletics.
Of all the unique accomplishments- a national championship, a trip to the White House, two indoor team titles, and a perfect 32-0 season- what has been the highlight of your Illinois career thus far?
Personally winning NCAA team championship in May was the highlight of my career. We've accomplished a lot of other great things, but nothing matches winning at the end of the year--after an undefeated season and being ranked number one. I think only two teams have ever done that before. We've left our mark and are going to be in the record books as, hopefully, one of the best teams. The individual accolades are also nice and everything, but nothing matches winning the team championship.
Tennis doesn't traditionally draw large crowds on college campuses. How is the team received and supported in Champaign?
It's amazing. We have this fan group called the Net Nuts that was started by a former player, Mike Kosta, the guy that runs the tennis center, and Craig Tiley. The point was just to show fans that college tennis can be fun and they can cheer; it doesn't have to be 'hush-hush' like in the professionals. People can come out to cheer and it's a huge advantage for us. It's so much fun, the band plays in between the singles and doubles matches and the baton twirler is out there, it's like a basketball game. The atmosphere makes it so much more enjoyable to play, and we really draw off the crowd. I think last season we averaged 900 people per home match and there's really not any more room in our tennis center for more.
I understand you underwent back surgery in the off-season, where do you think you are now, physically, compared with this time last season?
I was doing well last year, probably having my best season, but all through the NCAA tournament, I had to play with a lot of pain. Afterwards we found out that I had a herniated disc, which required surgery. Right now, I don't think I'm quite at the level I was at, but I feel 100% and there is nothing holding me back. I don't have any pain during my matches. I'm just trying to take it one match at a time and improve when I play. I want to help out the team and eventually my game will come together.
As a senior, what are your plans for tennis after graduation?
I'm going to see how the season goes and see how my back holds up, because we still have about two-and-a-half months of intense competition remaining in the season. I have put together a few portfolios to give to people. I am going to plan on turning pro in May and then (former Illini and current pro) Amer Delic, (current seniors) Brian Wilson, Michael Caulkins, and I are all going to go on the tour together.