Kentucky’s Liam Draxl prepares to return serve against Wake Forest in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament (Photo credit Dr. John Huang).
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – The No. 7-ranked Kentucky men’s tennis team defeated No. 9-ranked Wake Forest 4 – 2 in the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament this afternoon at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex. The rain-interrupted match was Kentucky’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2014. With the win, the Wildcats (24 – 7) now move on to the Elite Eight for only the fifth time in school history.
Wake Forest’s No. 2 and 3 doubles tandems swept quickly through the doubles point to open the match, putting the Wildcats in the unenviable position of battling from behind.
“We know that through our tough SEC schedule, we can beat teams at home [even] when losing the doubles point,” Kentucky head coach Cedric Kauffmann said afterwards. “I thought my guys did great coming out [in the singles]. I think we won five out of the first six first sets. We had momentum at the end, and the rain scared me a little bit. But going indoors with two big servers—with Gabriel [Diallo] and Millen [Hurrion]—it’s tough to beat them indoors.”
No. 1 Liam Draxl (6 – 3, 6 -1), No. 6 JJ Mercer (7 – 6, 6 -1), No. 2 Diallo (6 – 2, 3 – 6, 6 – 1), and No. 5 Hurrion (6 – 4, 4 – 6, 6 – 3) did not disappoint the enthusiastic Big Blue fans in attendance, rallying the Wildcats in singles competition for another huge postseason win. Hurrion—from Weymouth, England—clinched the match by serving out his decisive third set.
“It was pretty surreal,” said an elated Hurrion. “My last match here at UK in Lexington. As a fifth-year senior to go out with a win like this…for me to clinch this thing was super special. I knew my guy was struggling physically, so I just had to lock it in and come out firing, and I knew it’d be tough for him to stay with me.”
If you’re an avid University of Kentucky sports fan, this past year has been fraught with highs and lows.
Just when the football team cruises to another ten-win season and a Citrus Bowl victory, the basketball team crashes and burns to Saint Peter’s in the NCAA tournament first round. As the UK Track & Field and Volleyball stars go about their winning ways, the baseball team’s postseason life hangs precariously in the balance. UK’s women’s basketball team throws in a clunker of a regular season but rebounds with one of the greatest SEC tournament championship runs ever.
Chalk one up, then, for the consistency of UK Men’s Tennis. Lately, it’s been the most underappreciated athletic program on the UK campus. Kauffman—now in his tenth season at the helm—is on a heater, having led his troops on two amazing consecutive runs.
A breakthrough campaign last year included a wire-to-wire finish in the top 25 of the ITA team rankings followed by a slew of individual player accomplishments. Draxl was chosen as the first National Player of the Year in school history after a scintillating run to the NCAA Singles Championship semifinals.
This year it’s been more of the same. Draxl is still cruising along as the fourth-ranked player in the country. He has plenty of help, however, as the Cats boast one of the deepest lineups ever, with seven different singles players and four different doubles tandems being currently ranked.
“I think it comes from the culture,” Draxl acknowledged. “There’s some quote in Cedric’s office that says, ‘Great teams are led by players.’ All the players on this team, we push to be better. It’s helped everyone improve throughout their course of time being at Kentucky. Everyone’s constantly getting better and pushing themselves.”
It’s comforting to note that at least from the players’ perspective, the University of Kentucky is now regarded as a fantastic place to develop and grow your game. What remains to be seen is whether the program can catch on in the hearts of the fans. I bet the average UK sports fan still couldn’t name the tennis coach or the team’s top player. What would it take to change that?
“Just win the next match or two,” Kauffmann said with a sly smile. “My job is to do something we have not done before. Our recruiting is doing great right now. We’ve picked up a lot of good players. It’s because of the players we have here. They are a joy to work with. When recruits come in, they love also those guys. They see our work ethic. But to take it to the next level, we need to make a Final Four. We need to get to the Final and win that championship.”
Until then, the UK Tennis program remains the Rodney Dangerfield of Big Blue Nation. The path toward respectability will not be easy. The journey continues this Thursday in Champaign, Illinois, against top-ranked TCU. The Horned Frogs breezed past NC State 4 – 0.
“One match at a time,” Draxl cautioned. “We’re halfway there if we want to win this thing. I think we can go all the way.”
Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you’re in search of some practical life lessons, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669