Champaign, IL (U-WIRE) -- Ryler DeHeart sits unassumingly watching tennis matches Sunday morning. His six foot frame folds easily into the blue plastic chair that is the same color as the court he is expected to play on tonight. He does not have to be at the Atkins Tennis Center.
But it is sophomore Kevin Anderson's first time playing in the United States Tennis Association Challenger of Champaign-Urbana and DeHeart, a senior, is at the tournament to support his teammate and sometimes doubles partner. DeHeart's head turns from side to side as he watches the tennis ball bounce on either side of the net. He is analyzing the match, figuring out each athlete's strengths and weaknesses; but mostly, he is there for Anderson.
Simply by watching the Illinois senior, one would not assume he is currently the best player in college tennis today. He has a smaller build than many tennis players; but, looking more closely, one can see signs of DeHeart's athleticism. His arms bulge when he stretches and his knees are skinned from diving for tennis balls. However, he is not boastful or arrogant. He speaks thoughtfully, smiling often. There is almost always a hint of laughter in his voice, and he does not mind when teammate and fellow senior Pramod Dabir pokes fun at him - at least these days.
But life, and tennis, has not always been so easy for DeHeart.
In 2003, he and Dabir watched from the sidelines together as their team won the NCAA title. While their teammates battled for the title on the court, the then-freshmen's conversations bounced from topic to topic, centering mostly on how bummed they were that they were not in the lineup. DeHeart had played earlier in the tournament. But, when he lost during the team's Sweet Sixteen appearance against Washington, he knew his chances to play again that championship season were going to be limited.
Now, however, there are few people other than the All-American that Illinois head coach Brad Dancer would rather have on the court.
"He's an absolute warrior," Dancer said. "I just have so much respect for him as a person and a tennis player."
As a tennis player, it is easy to understand why fans - even of the most casual variety - are drawn to his matches. His never-give-up attitude has become a symbol of what it means to be an Illini, but yet, there is a softer side to him. He always remembers that his team comes first, which is why, when asked what it was like to be named an All-American last May, he looked at the reporter addressing him in disbelief: Am I? I didn't know I was - really? Okay, cool, sweet. Thanks for telling me.
It is finally DeHeart's time in the spotlight.
The road to the top was not easy though. The journey began when he was six-years-old and first picked up a tennis racket. His grandfather Tony Mann, encouraged DeHeart to play tennis and Steve Smith, DeHeart's coach in juniors, taught him the skills necessary to make him a top-ranked junior - even helping him achieve his dream of playing college tennis. At Illinois, he matured to the point where he could become a touring professional.
Smith showed DeHeart what it would take to be a good tennis player through hard work and determination. Since then, DeHeart has always given 110 percent not only in tennis but also in school. He will graduate in May with a psychology degree, but is taking pre-med classes to help him achieve one of his other goals of becoming a doctor.
Being a student-athlete and a pre-med student has not been easy. He often has to squeeze time to study in throughout the day, convincing himself he can memorize charts of data during changeovers and breaks at practice. He always says he does not have a minute to waste, sophomore teammate Brandon Davis said. He is so dedicated to his studies that he celebrated winning his first national title, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Indoor Singles title - which he won last year - with a quick meal at Qdoba, before spending the rest of the night studying.
The high-stress life of a high-achieving student and the nation's No. 1 collegiate tennis player has taken its toll, but that has not stopped DeHeart. He has upped the ante this year, adding the title of team captain to his resume. His leadership, evident for years, has also changed dramatically.
Instead of being a gym rat who leads by example, he is a vocal leader who sends reminder e-mails to teammates and constantly goes out of his way to make others feel appreciated.
DeHeart still calls his former teammates on their birthdays and former Illini Chris Martin remembers when he was injured his senior season. DeHeart went out of his way to send Martin an e-mail to tell him how much he was still needed and that he was constantly in DeHeart's thoughts.
Michael Calkins, who was a junior when the Illini won the title in 2003 and worked as a student coach for Illinois in the fall of 2004, said DeHeart's transformation in the last three and a half years has been remarkable.
"Oh my God, it is unbelievable how much he has grown as a person, both on and off the court," Calkins said. "Off the court, he's totally made a 180. He's a guy that I would love to spend time with - more time with than I do - and I think his freshman year I might not have said that."
As much as some things about DeHeart have changed, others have not.
His locker is still immaculate, with everything in its proper place and clothes folded, stacked neatly in piles. It is DeHeart's belief, he said, that creating order in certain parts of his life, will make other parts of his life more organized as well. He also believes that working hard now will pay off later - for example, when he begins his professional tennis career.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said of traveling and playing professional tennis after college. "No matter what happens, it's a great experience - the people that you meet and the places that you go. I'll try it for at least a couple of years, anyway. Anything can happen."
For now though, DeHeart will focus on his journey to becoming the best professional tennis player he can be while remaining faithful to his Illinois roots.
"Being an Illini is a part of who I am. When I play for the school, I have a sense of pride about it, both on and off the court," DeHeart said.
He knows he will always have a close relationship with the coaches, even former Illinois coaches Craig Tiley and Bruce Berque, who have left Illinois since DeHeart began his collegiate career. He said he hopes that he will be able to influence the Illinois tennis program well into the future too.
"I hope my (younger) teammates remember that the experience that they have at Illinois is about a lot more than just tennis," DeHeart said. "It's about trying to become better people, not just worrying about forehands and backhands. Illinois really prepares you more for life than anything else. Hopefully, I've left my mark on Illinois - Illinois has left its mark on me."
(C) 2004 Daily Illini via U-WIRE