LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Kentucky men’s tennis team showed tremendous resilience fighting back from a 3-0 hole to win 4-3 over Clemson and advance to the NCAA Sweet 16 on Saturday inside the Hillary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Center.
UK overcame losing the doubles point and on its top two singles courts to begin the match. The Wildcats advanced to the last 16 of the NCAA Men’s Tennis Championships, which will be held next week in Athens, Ga.
“I’m going to have to look at the stats since I’ve been here the last seven, eight years, but I’m sure the times we’ve won matches after going down 3-0, including on singles courts one and two, is in the first or second percentile,” head coach Cedric Kauffmann said. “Just the way it happened, I think we lost some air. We saw Tom (Jomby) kind of get hurt a little bit. You lose one of your leaders and then (Alejandro) Gomez on two loses so we’re down.
“I think Beck (Pennington) was kind of finishing around the same time so we’ll say we’re down 3-1 with some courts to go with one of our leaders being hurt, that kind of was really, really tough. We knew as a coaching staff we had to win Kevin (Lai) or Gomez’ court. We trust Grant (Roberts) with our lives at six, so we knew we had to get it done there. I just thank my coaching staff. I think they did a tremendous job today.”
Kentucky’s Nos. 5 and 6 singles players – Kevin Lai and Grant Roberts – clinched the match collectively for all intents and purposes. The two courts started later than the first four singles matchups after the action was moved into the four-court Boone Indoor Center due to weather.
Roberts cruised in straight sets to finish off the Tigers, but Lai’s match – which finished fifth – kept UK alive. The sophomore (from Kaohsiung, Taiwan) battled back from a set down to even the dual match at 3-3 and set up Roberts’ clincher.
The No. 15 nationally-seeded (No. 1 regional seed) Wildcats won the Lexington Regional for the fifth straight year. UK has now made the Sweet 16 in six consecutive seasons overall.
The Wildcats and Tigers (No. 2 regional seed) enjoyed an energetic crowd that was amplified by the indoor conditions, and moreover by the down to the wire nature of Saturday’s match.
“It was a blast,” Clemson head coach Chuck McCuen said. “We play for that. I love the Kentucky crowd, I love their intensity, I love their passion for their players and for their school. I hope we can emulate that same kind of environment in the future. It was just an awesome experience for me as a coach, and for a bunch of young players who really did a good job today.”
UK dropped the doubles point 2-1, and quickly fell into a 2-0 hole when the team’s star senior, No. 13 Jomby – who graduated earlier on Saturday – was forced to retire on court one at 2-2 in the first set with an apparent leg injury.
From there Gomez (UK) lost to Dominique Maden (CU) 6-4, 6-3 on court two, at which point the pressure ratcheted up exponentially with UK needing to win all of the remaining courts.
UK’s Beck Pennington and Jerry Lopez responded in quick succession as they completed straight-sets wins on courts three and four respectively shortly after the hole reached its deepest point for UK.
Back in the match, but still trailing 3-2, attention shifted to the two remaining courts: five and six.
With Kauffmann and co. apparently placing their full faith and credit in their No. 6 singles player (Roberts), the main drama unfolded in the No. 5 singles match directly in front of the crowd on court one.
Having taken over on the main show court after Jomby’s match ended much earlier than usual, Lai was forced to speed up his preparations for singles after he lost the clincher 8-6 alongside Jomby in doubles.
“I was surprised because the whole team knows what’s going on,” Lai said of being thrust into his singles match earlier that he would have expected. “I didn’t expect that this would happen. I was just thinking that I have one-and-a-half hours to take my time and (get) ready to play my singles. But everything just happened too quickly. I was just like, it happened already so I had to play the way I played.”
Lai dropped the first set 4-3, but got a break to take a 5-4 lead in the second set. He served it out to force a final set shortly after that.
“I was really nervous,” Lai said. “After he took the first set and I saw Gomez, our second singles, lost, I was just thinking—I know our No. 6 is going to play faster than me so I know I have no choice. I have to win. That’s what I was thinking because if I lose that means the whole team loses. I tried to step up for the team.”
Lai and his opponent, Luke Johnson, both fought those nerves early in the third as each of the first few games featured multiple deuces and break chances.
Lai apparently handled the nerves better, earning the first break of the final set to take a 3-2 lead. He never looked back. He evened the overall dual match at 3-3 with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
“To be honest today was more about mental strength for me than tactics or game plan,” Lai said. “After I dropped the first set I had to will myself to battle through and keep playing instead of just kind of letting things keep going the way they were.”
With Lai having won the day’s most competitive match, attention turned to the No. 6 singles match, but by that point – four hours into the competition – the outcome was merely a formality.
Roberts was leading 6-2, 4-0 and he won two of the next three games to clinch the improbably comeback victory for the Wildcats. Roberts clinched the Sweet 16 berth for UK for a second consecutive season, having also finished off UK’s regional final win over Virginia Tech a year ago.