A young man out of Pewee Valley, Ky., realized one of his dreams this week.
Senior Eric Quigley became just the third University of Kentucky men's tennis player to compete in the NCAA Singles Championship Final on Monday. He fell to Southern California's Steve Johnson, the nation's No. 1 player, in the title match, 6-4, 6-4.
Upon returning to the Bluegrass, Quigley set off for home to rest and reflect on his tournament run, his career and everything along the path over his time at UK. And though he lost his final match, he's still proud of what he was able to accomplish over the last few weeks.
"Obviously I wanted to win that last match," said Quigley, "but looking back at it all, it was awesome making it that far. I think I did a good job of taking it one match at a time. I think that really helped."
In the past, that was a problem for Quigley. With his eyes set on larger goals in the distance, he would trip up on the smaller steps along the way. The "one match at a time" mantra that has been ingrained in each and every UK tennis player is something that head coach Dennis Emery has been preaching all season long to his team.
Quigley obviously got the message. And he's quick to attribute his success to a man that he calls the best in the business.
"Coach Emery, I mean, enough said about him," said Quigley "He's one of the greatest coaches in all of college tennis. He's helped me so much, day in and day out, over the past four years, and they're a real big key to my success looking back. Over my four years, I've improved in every area of tennis, and it's all due to (the coaches)."
The "one match at a time" philosophy is a tried and true in the world of athletics. The teams and athletes that stick to it are usually the ones with the most success at the end of the day. And Quigley has had his share of success.
He finishes his career with an impressive 172-47 record, including a record mark of 54-8 his senior season. His 172 career victories are 27 more than the next player in school history. He became the SEC Player of the Year on his way to a perfect 11-0 record in No. 1 singles in conference play. He's a five-time All-American, including three singles and two doubles honors. Quigley is just one of two players ever to compete in two collegiate grand slam finals. And he received the ITA Rafael Osuna Sportsmanship Award this season, which honors sportsmanship and on-court accomplishments.
At a point, those dreams and accomplishments seemed out of the realm of possibility. Arriving at Kentucky, he was just looking for an opportunity to compete.
"Coming into school, I was just happy to play," Quigley said. "I definitely didn't have these goals in mind, and these great achievements that I set. I had no idea. But I was just hoping to improve and help the program become better. I hope that in my four years, and my team, we were able to help make this an even better program and I just hope they continue to win championships and put themselves in a position to win a national title."
But eventually, Quigley realized he had something special. And it didn't take long.
"One of the key moments for me was my sophomore year, in the fall, I beat the number one guy in the country," Quigley said. "I played a great match. And that was a big moment for me. I kind of followed it up with another great win after that, and it told me that it wasn't just a fluke."
In fact, Quigley has been anything but a fluke, as he's continued to prove the legitimacy of his talents to his opponents.
Now Quigley will look forward to beating fellow professionals on the tour circuit as he begins his career post-UK. Though he has cemented himself as the greatest tennis player ever to wear the Blue and White, the dream to play professionally was one of the reasons he chose to play at Kentucky. By playing for Emery and his staff, he knew that he would have a chance to improve his game and take it to the next level.
Training begins just three days removed from his last collegiate match for that next level. He says he'll be back on the court Thursday and by the middle of next week, he will be off for California to begin training at the USG Training Center to prepare for "Futures" and "Challengers."
In fact, before his collegiate career was even finished, he accumulated some ATP points last summer, which will help him qualify for some professional tournaments in the near future. Quigley was also named to the United States Tennis Association collegiate team, which will help him earn wild cards that will help him enter into tournaments.
But there's no timetable for Quigley. He has no set number of matches he hopes to win this summer. He mentioned that some players take longer than others to make it to where he hopes to go. All he hopes to do is to improve and polish his game that he knows is good, but far from perfect.
"I try not to set a number," said Quigley. "I just want to keep improving right now, because I think that's the biggest thing I've got to work on, my serve and just improving my game."
But as he works towards his individual professional career, Quigley is quick to point out that the thing he will miss most is the team mentality and the camaraderie he's built with his teammates along the way. And even though he will no longer be on the team, it's going to be tough to keep him away from it.
"I'm going to miss all the guys on the team, and fighting for each other, working out together, and pushing each other to get better," said Quigley. "That's one of the many things I'm going to miss from Kentucky. I'm hoping I can come back in the fall and the spring the next couple years to practice and continue to learn from Coach Kauffmann and Coach Emery."
Perhaps that affection for his teammates and coaches is why he was so disappointed by their finish this season in the NCAA Tournament.
After reaching the Elite Eight last season, Kentucky, who returned quite a bit of talent including Quigley, had its sights set on loftier goals. Emery had talked all season about the possibility of this team reaching a Final Four and potentially a national championship. He felt as if he had the most athletic team in the nation, and he probably was not far off on that assessment.
Kentucky was selected to host a regional in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, and they breezed past both Radford and Indiana on their way to the Sweet 16 in Athens, Ga., with their eyes on a Final Four appearance. It was not to be, however, as No. 11 Stanford caught the No. 6 Wildcats at the right time, leaving Kentucky a round short of another Elite Eight appearance.
It was a tough pill to swallow for Quigley, who badly wanted to make a deep run in the tournament for he and his teammates.
"It was real tough," said Quigley. "Especially the year before when we had made the Elite Eight, and had a tough loss, and we thought we kind of had a chance there against USC even though they were a great team. But we really wanted to come back and improve on that good year that we had last year."
Luckily for Quigley, he had two shots at redemption for his team. He still had the singles and doubles tournament waiting in the wings. The Sweet 16 loss to Stanford was all the motivation he needed.
"I think one of the reasons I was able to do so well at individuals last week was because I had such a sour taste in my mouth after the team event," Quigley said. "I wanted to bounce back and do it for the team. I didn't want to have a disappointing end to my career, I wanted to go out on a good note, and I was definitely able to do that."
Quigley rode that wave of emotion and turned it into momentum that didn't stop until he reached his goal, his dream.
He was faced with a tough task in the Final. Defending singles champion Steve Johnson from USC was all that stood in the way of a championship run for Quigley. However, Johnson was in a midst of a 71-match winning streak, and he would not be denied a second national championship. But the loss, although disappointing, did not ruin the experience and journey to the place that he had worked so hard to reach.
"It was kind of surreal," Quigley said. "I've been thinking about that since I was in high school when I was a little kid, making it to a Finals and the NCAAs. And for it to actually happen is like a dream come true.
"You know I was definitely happy to be there. I was happy making the Finals, but I wanted to bring home the title. But (USC's) Steve Johnson's quite an accomplished player, it's definitely not a bad loss by any means. It was a great run, and looking back, it was awesome."
It was awesome, and he Quigley has been awesome for the Kentucky tennis program and for his University. And for a Kentucky kid to reach his dreams and represent the University of Kentucky in the fashion that he has over the past four years, that is as awesome as it gets.