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Illinois poses early test for top-ranked Cavaliers

Virginia faces No. 16 Illinois in the first of three weekend matches; Boland praises early success of highly touted freshman Domijan, who plays No. 2 singles for team

When freshman Alex Domijan first enrolled at Virginia last fall, Brian Boland, coach of the Virginia men's tennis team, knew he had landed one of the nation's top talents. The No. 12-ranked junior in the world, Domijan had already been selected as a practice partner for the United States Davis Cup Team, and, when he was just 17, reached the finals of a USTA Futures Tour event.

But after dropping only one set en route to an ITA All-American singles title last October and rising to the No. 3 spot in the ITA singles rankings, the 6-foot-7 Florida native, Boland said this week, was performing even better than expected.

"Obviously, I have high expectations for Alex," Boland said. "But to his credit, he has developed at an extremely rapid rate both mentally and physically. So it's a credit to him, his hard work, and the way he goes about his business every day."

Tomorrow, Domijan and the Cavaliers (1-0) face an early test in No. 16 Illinois before squaring off against No. 36 Notre Dame and unranked Eastern Kentucky Sunday. The Illini boast one of nation's top players in Dennis Nevolo, who beat Domijan last fall in the back draw of the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships. Nevolo will likely face senior Michael Shabaz at the No. 1 singles position.

Domijan easily won his singles and doubles matches during Virginia's win against William & Mary Tuesday, and said afterward that the season-opening match allowed him to adjust to the indoor surface at the Boar's Head Sports Club, which tends to play faster than the outdoor clay he is accustomed to when training in Florida. Illinois, he said, boasts a lineup which has excelled when playing on the faster surface.

"They're obviously a very good indoor team, and we're looking forward to [the match]," Domijan said.

The Cavaliers have returned a bulk of their lineup from last year's team, which was ranked as high as No. 1 in the country, but lost to Southern California in the NCAA Tournament semifinals. Regular season dual matches are where the Cavaliers have excelled as of late, having lost just one since the 2007-08 season.

Shabaz, who first joined the team in 2007 when it was led by two-time NCAA singles champion Somdev Devvarman, said he would give this year's lineup "a slight edge" compared to the Virginia team during his first season. That team went undefeated in regular season play but lost in the NCAA Tournament semifinals.

Notre Dame and Eastern Kentucky, which the Cavaliers will face Sunday, have found success in their respective conferences but have yet to gain traction against top teams like Virginia. Eastern Kentucky won the 2010 Ohio Valley Conference a year ago and returns five of its top six players this season. The Cavaliers, though, blanked Eastern Kentucky in a match early last year while resting Shabaz, sophomore Jarmere Jenkins and senior Sanam Singh. Notre Dame reached the Big East title match in 2010, and four of its top six players are ranked in the top 125 in the ITA singles rankings; its highest-ranked player, Stephen Havens, is ranked No. 71. Shabaz beat Havens, 6-4, 6-2, last season during a match at Notre Dame, which the Cavaliers won, 7-4, with senior Singh and Jenkins each coasting to straight-set singles victories.

Illinois, then, will likely prove to be the toughest of the three teams Virginia faces this weekend. When Virginia has visited Illinois in the past, fans supporting the Illini were out in full force, Boland said. Virginia, which last year produced the highest average attendance in the country, anticipates seeing throngs of spectators as well.

"We're hoping to get a ton of fans out and create a great atmosphere," Boland said. "They do it to us in the Atkins Tennis Center. It's one of the toughest places to play in the country in Illinois, and I'd say the same for Charlottesville here at the Boar's Head Sports Club."

The match against Illinois tomorrow begins at 6 p.m., and Sunday the Cavaliers face Notre Dame at noon and Eastern Kentucky at 6 p.m.