Kentucky’s No. 2, Gabriel Diallo, serves during his NCAA tournament match. Photo Credit Dr. John Huang
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – If you love tennis, this was a battle worth watching.
The 15th-ranked UK men’s tennis team lost a 4 – 2 heartbreaker to the 19th-ranked Arizona Wildcats at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex earlier this afternoon, propelling the visiting Wildcats into the Sweet Sixteen of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Tennis Championship.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the Bluegrass, Kentucky (19 – 8) fell behind early after losing the doubles point to their spirited underdogs from Tucson. The matchup proved to be precursor of the drama to come as Arizona’s doubles team of Carlos Hassey/Alejandro Reguant took down Kentucky’s Gabriel Diallo/Cesar Bourgois 6 – 4 to claim the decisive point.
Predictably, the singles went down to the wire. Kentucky’s No. 3, Millen Hurrion, easily defeated his opponent 6 – 1, 6 – 4 to tie the match at one apiece. However, when No. 6 Alexandre Leblanc and No. 4 Bourgois went down, it looked like all she wrote. The reality was the Cats would need to sweep the final three matches to advance.
The next man in was Kentucky’s No. 1, Liam Draxl, rallying for a 3 – 6, 6 – 4, 6 – 1 come-from-behind win to keep the hopes alive. That left either No. 5 Joshua Lapadat or No. 2 Gabriel Diallo out on the court to finish out the improbable comeback. With Lapadat knotted with Alejandro Reguant at 6 – 6 in the third, Arizona’s Jonas Diverts closed it out at No. 2 with a 6 – 7, 6 – 1, 6 – 4 victory over Diallo.
“Congratulations to Arizona,” an obviously disappointed Coach Cedric Kauffmann said after the match. “We’ve been pretty tough to beat at home. We were undefeated this year before this match. [Arizona] made us play extra balls. We usually stay calm and come forward a little bit more. We kind of panicked a little bit and did not play our game at some big moments.”
As it so often is the case, it all started with the doubles.
“Our [No.] 1 and 2 did not play great,” Kauffman conceded. “We threw some double faults at some random times and missed some volleys we don’t usually miss. I know the moment was pretty big, but we’ve got to make those plays. Getting down a doubles point is always tough. We can still come back, but our backs are against the wall, so we’ve got to win four singles out of six. That’s a really good team, so that wasn’t going to be easy. We still have the tools and the players to do it. It just came down to a couple of points here and there—a couple of inches here and there.”
Arizona now advances to the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida, where the remaining sixteen teams will compete for a national title May 17 – 22.
For four Kentucky players, the season is not over. Liam Draxl, Gabriel Diallo, Millen Hurrion, and Cesar Bourgois will also be in Orlando to participate in the individual NCAA Championships held May 23 – 28.
Draxl earned the No. 1 overall seed in the singles tournament, while Diallo and Hurrion garnered at-large selections. Diallo also earned an at-large berth in the doubles championship alongside Bourgois.
“Those kids love tennis,” said Kauffman. “They’re going to come back out next weekend. I think anybody on our team in singles has a chance to win it all. It’s just going to come down to a couple of inches. Everybody is pretty close to one another, but we can do some special things down there.”
For tennis coaches, losing your final match of the season is often the worst day of the year. Although Kentucky lost, Coach Kauffman can take solace in this: hosting the NCAA Tournament was overall a winning experience. It was a great to see so much blue in the stands.
I just wanted to say, ‘thank you,’” Kauffmann concluded. “It was great. I don’t know how many people we had today—five hundred, six hundred people. I hope they enjoyed watching those boys. Those boys have worked hard for the Big Blue Nation and Kentucky, so I hope they had a good day. And hopefully they can kind of keep us in mind next year and come back to the matches. We always appreciate the Kentucky support.”
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. His new book, CUT TO THE CHASE, is now available on Amazon. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.