By Alex Forkner
The UK men’s tennis players find themselves in familiar territory, in more ways than one.
After vanquishing Indiana 4-0, they are back in the Sweet 16, a plateau they have reached each of the last three seasons. They are returning to the courts in Athens, Ga., where they defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 4-3 on the way to an undefeated SEC regular season. And there will be a familiar opponent on the other side of the net.
“Stanford is one of the four teams that beat us this year,” said head coach Dennis Emery. The Cardinal topped the Wildcats 4-1 in Charlottesville, Va. on February 19. “It was a match I felt like we definitely should have won the first time around. It was a match that I felt like I didn’t do a good job preparing our team. I just didn’t have the answers to get the guys to come back and play after a really tough loss the day before to Ohio State.”
The rematch is a chance for UK to rinse their mouths of that ill-tasting loss.
“We definitely want to get some revenge,” said senior Eric Quigley, the 2012 SEC Player of the Year. “They’re definitely a good team but I think we can play a little better. But it’s not going to be easy. Stanford’s a great team, and Stanford’s always good, every year.”
Revenge is not the Wildcats’ primary goal, just a step in the process of bringing home a national title, a feat the team has fallen short of the past three seasons.
“From the standpoint of when you’re here, when you’re at Kentucky, when you’re in the SEC, the one thing I’ve learned over 30 years is when you have a good team, you better win,” Emery said. “Finishing second and third doesn’t get you a lot, it doesn’t seem like. It’s important when you’re good to really seal the deal and put the nail in the coffin.”
Quigley believes the lessons learned during seasons past has this team equipped to advance further than ever before.
“I think we can use the experience we’ve learned and not get so tight in tight situations, knowing we’ve done this before. We just don’t want to improve on the previous year; we really want to go all the way.”
Emery attributed part of his team’s success to his assistants, Cedric Kauffman and Matthew Emery, but also labeled this squad as the most athletically talented he has coached in his 30 years at the helm. He believes that athleticism will serve the Wildcats well down the stretch.
“We really have the ability to make mistakes and outrun them, outjump them, outserve them. Our talent level is significantly better this year. I’ve been around long enough that I’ve forgotten how important it was to have the best players.”
Along with superior skill sets, the level of competitiveness and character distinguishes this year’s team from the last few to make it this far.
“These guys really want to win,” Emery said. “It’s the most competitive team that I’ve ever been around, both individually and as a team. They take a lot of pride in what they’re doing. That’s something that I’m most proud of.”
Emery hopes the environment in Athens will fuel his team, similar to when the Cats knocked off the then No. 3 ranked Bulldogs.
“If you could have seen us play Georgia earlier this year, they were just thriving on that situation. As [the University of Georgia] would tell you on their letterhead, it’s the Mecca of college tennis. We won the conference this year at the Mecca of college tennis. It’s a venue that our players love to play in.”
With past shortcomings behind them and an uncertain future ahead, Emery knows this is his team’s chance to leave their mark on a special year for UK Athletics.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and I think it’s the best year in UK Athletics that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It would mean something special if we could really help toward some of these director’s cups type point standings. That’s what we have to do this week coming up. We graduate our No. 1 and 2. Although we feel like we’re going to be good next year, this is our time.”
KyForward file photo. Slider image from UK Athletics.