By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 22, 2003
More than a few heads turned when Tampa's Ryler DeHeart, a state champion and one of the country's top-ranked juniors, picked Illinois over Harvard last year.
"It sounded crazy to some," he said.
The former Jesuit star wasn't interested in what others thought. To DeHeart, Illinois seemed like a perfect fit. The Illini were considered an up-and-coming program, and coach Craig Tiley was mentored by Steve Smith, DeHeart's longtime Tampa-based instructor.
"It was the best decision of my life," DeHeart said.
Illinois is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, and DeHeart, a freshman playing Nos. 5 and 6 singles, is 27-6. The Illini won the Big Ten title Sunday and are the odds-on favorites to claim the program's first national title. They have beaten No. 2 Florida twice.
Sports Illustrated chronicled Illinois' success last week. Author Jon Wertheim called the Illini "arguably the most comprehensively dominating team since John McEnroe's 1978 Stanford club."
"It's great to say that I play on the No. 1 team in the country," said DeHeart, a psychology major. "I knew we'd have a good team and be top five, but we kept doing well and haven't lost yet. We've gotten a lot of recognition."
The NCAA Tournament begins May 10. The Illini have yet to get beyond the quarterfinals.
"It would be unbelievable if we could win it," DeHeart said. "We've all been talking about it."
SPEAK WITH A STAR: Tampa's James Blake, ranked No. 25 and one of America's top young players, will have a live chat at 4 p.m. April 30 at www.tennis.com, the Web site for Tennis Magazine. The 23-year-old will be the cover story for the magazine's May edition.
SIGN OF THE TIMES?: Has parity finally hit the WTA Tour?
Two weeks ago, Justine Henin-Hardenne ended top-ranked Serena Williams' quest for an unbeaten season at the Family Circle Cup. Sunday, Elena Dementieva captured her first title with a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over No. 5 Lindsay Davenport in the final of the Bausch & Lomb Championships.
Dementieva beat three top-10 players during the week, including Henin-Hardenne. The title vaulted her from 21st to 13th in the rankings. Two weeks earlier she lost in the third round of the Sarasota Classic on a similar clay surface.
Dementieva reached the semifinals of the 2000 U.S. Open, and had a top-10 world ranking the next year. But foot injuries halted her progress.
"There were moments in my life where it started to feel like I'm not going to win this title," she said. "I'm glad it came true in this situation, and finally I did it. It has been a very difficult two years."
ODDS AND ENDS: Legend Martina Navratilova was honored by the WTA last week for completing a lifetime Super Slam. She became the first player, man or woman in the modern era, to win the singles, doubles and mixed titles at all four majors when she claimed the Australian Open mixed title in January. WTA CEO Larry Scott presented Navratilova with a world globe with the four cities of the Grand Slams marked with diamonds. ... Blake, Andy Roddick and Tampa's Jennifer Capriati have corresponded with members of the U.S. armed forces through ESPN's Jocks to GIs program. Go to www.sports.espn.go.com/chat/sportsnation/index for transcripts.