ATHENS, Ga. – After a season in which the No. 15 University of Kentucky men’s tennis team advanced to a school-record fifth-straight Sweet 16, finished third in the rigorous Southeastern Conference, and advanced to the semifinals of the 2014 SEC Tournament, the Wildcats were unable to mount a rally against the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners, as Kentucky was eliminated from the 2014 NCAA Men’s Tennis Championships on Friday night at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga.
Friday night’s loss caps off a season in which the Wildcats again made the Sweet 16 under the direction of second year head coach Cedric Kauffmann. Kauffmann and his senior-laden team of six players playing in their final match as a Wildcat, won 23 matches this season, including three against top-10 teams, with an upset of No. 1 Ohio State in April. The Wildcats’ win over OSU was UK’s first win over a top-ranked team since UK upset No. 1 Stanford in 1997.
“I thought with Tom Jomby and Charles Minc not here, we had the odds stacked against us today,” Kauffmann said. “We wanted to put ourselves in position to make a push against one of the best teams in the country and we had our chances.”
Kauffmann and assistant coach Matt Emery led the Wildcats to a third-place finish in the SEC, the highest under Kauffmann, and a semifinal appearance in the SEC Tournament for the third time in the last four seasons. Kentucky had three players, Beck Pennington, Tom Jomby and Alejandro Gomez ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s top 100 for a majority of the season, as well as two consistently ranked doubles teams.
By advancing out of the Lexington Regional last weekend with a monumental 4-3 comeback win over Clemson after trailing 2-0 and 3-1 at times during the match, Kentucky joined an elite level of college tennis, becoming one of just seven schools in the NCAA to advance to five-straight Sweet 16’s .The Wildcats join Tennessee, Georgia, USC, Virginia, Ohio State and Georgia as the seven schools that have joined that elite company.
“I want to thank the six seniors Tom Jomby, Alejandro Gomez, Ryuji Hirooka, Panav Jha, Maks Gold and Grant Roberts for all of their hard work, sacrifice and generosity that they’ve shown this program. With four Sweet 16s, an SEC title and an Elite Eight, that’s quite a resume that they’ve built the last four years here. I thought we could have gone a lot further in this tournament, but we were really shorthanded today.”
In the doubles point and in singles, the Wildcats were playing with an extremely shuffled lineup, as UK’s top-ranked player and two-time All-American, Tom Jomby was out for the rest of the tournament after suffering a broken ankle in Saturday’s regional final with Clemson.
With the new lineup, Beck Pennington and Alejandro Gomez were forced to play on court one, Kevin Lai teamed with doubles rookie Jerry Lopez to form Kentucky’s court two duo, and then Nils Ellefsen and Ryuji Hirooka rounded out the UK doubles lineup on court three.
Ellefsen and Hirooka got out to a fast start on court three, as they combined to go up double-break and take a 5-1 lead to start off the match on the right foot. Hirooka and Ellefsen then allowed a break back at 5-4 and their lead was dwindled down to just a single break. Ellefsen and Hirooka would then earn the opportunity to serve out the match at 7-6 and clinched the 8-6 win on court three.
The win for UK on court three would be the Wildcats’ only doubles win of the match, as OU won 8-3 on court one, with two breaks on the advantage, and then also winning 8-5 over Lopez and Lai, a single-break lead.
“We had some second serves on court two that we didn’t take advantage of and we didn’t make them play,” Kauffmann said. “At one, we lacked a lot of percentages and were unable to win that match. I was really proud of Nils and Ryuji for winning their match on court three.”
In singles, Oklahoma won all the completed sets of the match to take the necessary three matches to put away the Wildcats, 4-0.
OU went up 2-0 as No. 5 Guillermo Alcorta of Oklahoma defeated Gomez 6-1, 6-1 on court one. Gomez, who was a Second Team All-SEC performer this season, ends his career 72-38 overall and had his best season as a Wildcat this year, winning 16 matches. Gomez had a record April this year, going 11-1 in the fourth month of the season in singles and doubles including clinching a couple of matches and reaching No. 85 in the country in singles action this season. The Cali, Columbia native teamed with Beck Pennington to go 13-8 in doubles on court two this season, and winning nine of their last 11 matches of the season.
2013 All-American and sophomore Kevin Lai fell 6-1, 7-5 on court four to increase the UK deficit to overcome to 3-0. Lai had the match on serve in the final set at 6-5 before being broken to lose in the second set, 7-5. Lai finishes the season 12-5 in singles play this season including a win over No. 82 Elliott Orkin, the highest-ranked win for the Taiwanese sophomore in his UK career. Lai went 12-11 with Tom Jomby in doubles, and once again, were the Wildcats’ top-ranked tandem all season.
The match was clinched on court three as Jerry Lopez fell 6-3, 6-3.
“The first hour of singles was as flat as an hour of tennis as we have played all season.” Kauffmann said. “We picked the wrong time to do that. You can’t do that against a good team. We made a push there in the second hour, but it was too late.”
Due to Jomby’s ankle injury, he will be withdrawing from the singles and doubles championships this season.
“I’m very proud of this team. We will get back to work with the newcomers and the underclassmen and try and take this program to the next level.” Kauffmann said.
The 2014 NCAA Team and Singles & Doubles Championships will continue at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga., all of this and next week as national champions in all three categories will be crowned in the Peach State.
NCAA Tournament – Sweet 16
(2) Oklahoma 4, (15)Kentucky 1
Dan Magill Tennis Complex – Athens, Ga.
Friday, May 16, 2014
Match Duration: 2:31
Doubles (Order of finish: 1, 3, 2*)
1- Axel Alvarez/Dane Webb (OU) def. Alejandro Gomez/Beck Pennington (UK) 8-3
2- Guillermo Alcorta/Andrew Harris (OU) def. Jerry Lopez/Kevin Lai (UK) 8-5
3- Nils Ellefsen/Ryuji Hirooka (UK) def. Alex Ghilea/Nick Papac (OU) 8-6
Singles (Order of finish: 1, 4, 3*)
1- No. 5 Guillermo Alcorta (OU) def. No. 86 Alejandro Gomez (UK) 6-1, 6-2
2- No. 7 Axel Alvarez (OU) led Beck Pennington (UK) 6-4, 4-3
3- No. 41 Dane Webb (OU) def. Jerry Lopez (UK) 6-3, 6-3
4- No. 53 Andrew Harris (OU) def. Kevin Lai (UK) 6-1, 7-5
5- Austin Siegel (OU) led Grant Roberts (UK) 6-1, 4-1 (DNF)
6- Alex Ghilea (OU) led Ryuji Hirooka (UK) 6-1, 3-3 (DNF)