Ilarion Danilchenko awaits the serve in the Fall of 2021. Photo by Miami Communications

“30-40,” the referee noted from his mossy green chair.  His voice calm amidst the raucous crowd of 300 at the Orange Tennis and Fitness Club in Yerevan, Armenia.

The dust from the clay court floats throughout the midday air as Ilarion Danilchenko digs into his receiving position. The sun is just setting as he stands only one point away from his second major championship in as many weeks.

Danilchenko’s road to the top of his tennis world hasn’t been easy. He is reminded of what his father has always told him, “live in the moment and take nothing for granted.” It’s a saying he has kept with him throughout his childhood in Moscow, Russia, envisioning a moment like this.

Twenty-eight hours from his hometown, he is worn down, tired and homesick. His sister, Anfisa Danilchenko, stands behind a lime green fence serving as his only support system outside the court while he battles exhaustion on the inside.

At just 16 years old, Ilarion and his sister found themselves far away from home, scouring the tennis circuit for any tournament they could find. Both have played tennis for as long as they can remember. It’s who they are.

He recalls first picking up a racquet at the age of five, playing outside on the side-by-side courts his parents constructed at their house. His mother, Marina, played tennis during her younger years and was eager to share the game with her two  children.

“My mother always encouraged us to get outside and play for a couple hours, so that’s all I knew growing up,” he said. “She competed as a kid and even to this day plays every once in a while, for fun, so it’s great to share that with her.”

The Moscow native lived in Russia for the first six years of his life, before bouncing around to Spain, then Brazil and finally Argentina, where his parents currently reside. Although the frequent moving was difficult as a child, it prepared him for the challenges he would later face when on the road for the ITF circuit.

“It was hard. There were days that were harder than others, but it was a lot of work with not much reward at the beginning,” he said. “Looking back now it’s easy to say it was worth it, but there were definitely times of doubt.”

For those unfamiliar with tennis, the International Tennis Federation circuit is not easy to get into, especially at such a young age. It’s a series of professional tournaments sponsored by the ITF all around the world to bring out the best competition.

While in Latin America, Danilchenko claimed multiple championships with the mere hope of raising his ATP ranking high enough to get an invite to a tournament. He did and has never looked back and thus began traveling worldwide to each of its competitions every year leading up to college.

Not only was the stress of being away from his family challenging, but he had to pay his own way to every tournament he participated in. That meant every meal, flight and piece of equipment had to be earned and secured by a kid just trying to make a name for himself.

However, one constant in his ever-changing world was having Anfisa by his side. Both traveled to international tournaments together and were each other’s number one fan when they weren’t competing.

“I always loved supporting Ilarion, and I knew he would always do the same for me,” Anfisa said. “It’s nice to have that one person in your life you can always count on, and we were that person for each other.”

They grew close to one another at a young age, forming an unbreakable sibling bond that would be put to the test later in their lives. As it’s been for their whole life, it’s the Danilchenkos against the world.

“The two of us were traveling together all the time and that helped build the trust we have today,” he said. “She loved tennis just as much as I did and going everywhere in the world together, we bonded over that.”

Back at the G4 tournament in Armenia, with his sister in the crowd, he releases Anfisa’s gaze and comes back to the moment. There is only one thing standing between him and a second-straight title. Ilarion wanders down memory lane recalling all the moments it’s taken to get here. He had taken the court as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and has yet to lose a set in the 2019 G4 Yerevan President Cup.

The weekend prior, he took home the champion’s purse in the St. Petersburg Governor Cup marking his first major singles title. Now holding a 6-1, 5-1 lead in the second set, he’s ready to do it again.

Flash forward five years later and Ilarion now finds himself at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a sophomore. He competed at the University of Miami in the fall before transferring and was inactive for the 2022 NCAA spring season.

Nebraska head tennis coach Sean Maymi is banking on seeing the side of Danilchenko he watched on film when he played in Argentina. He knows if that’s the case, nobody can stop his new Husker on the court.

“Ilarion is a player with a strong all-court game, and he will add a lot to our singles and doubles lineup. He is working hard to get back into match form after taking a year off last spring but I’m confident in his abilities,” Maymi said.

Although the search to find a school was difficult, Danilchenko said believes he fits in well with his teammates and the tradition at Nebraska. With the culture being vastly different than where he grew up, it was important for him to find a place that felt like home to him. 

“I like the people here and the facilities that they provide at Nebraska,” he said. “Finding a place that was right for me in the United States was key and thankfully I found it here at Nebraska.”

His sister followed him to the Midwest after spending her first year in college at the University of Minnesota. Both have always considered going to school together. Ilarion as a Computer Science major, while his sister studies Biochemistry.

Danilchenko hopes to use his degree to become a programmer after his college days are over, but that’s in the future. He’s focused on the now.

“It’s not easy being a computer science major, but I knew Nebraska had the access and professors for me to succeed,” he said. “Education is something that has always been important to me, and it was all perfect when I committed here.”

Danilchenko says controlling his mind is something that helps him in the classroom and serves as a strength when he steps on the court, especially in championship moments like the one in Armenia back in 2019.  Back on the court in Yerevan, and he meets eyes with the man directly across the court from him: Danil Ozernoy.

Danilchenko locks in on the bright yellow tennis ball as Ozernoy readies to serve.  With what feels like the weight of the world on his shoulders, he receives the serve in a quick motion moving slightly to the left. 

In one step, he uses his backhand to drive the ball across the net in what was his game-winning rally. After a half-minute of back-and-forth action, Danilchenko finally buries a smash shot off the court and into the bleachers.  He immediately falls to the ground. A champion for the second time in seven days.

His hard work, passion and love for the game have contributed to take him around the world and now to Lincoln.  However, it’s his work ethic and determination that he’s banking on to one day take him to the top in tennis.

As the new arrival to UNL prepares for the 2022 season, he has one thing on his mind and that’s replicating the feeling of a kid finally realizing his dreams.

“Now that I know I have what it takes, it’s time to show everyone else.”

I'm currently a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and have previous writing experience with the DC Post-Gazette and The Daily Nebraskan. I work in the athletic department as a student SID, and over the summer was a media relations intern for USA Baseball.