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Kauffmann in pursuit of perfection as postseason looms for men's tennis

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Cedric Kauffmann has guided the men's tennis team to the No. 8 ranking in his first year as head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Cedric Kauffmann has guided the men's tennis team to the No. 8 ranking in his first year as head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky men's tennis is team is very good. The No. 8 ranking next to its name suggests that is so.

Cedric Kauffmann, UK men's tennis head coach, would agree. But sometimes very good just doesn't cut it, especially when the head coach holds his program to such high standards.

"I thought we started a little bit better than I expected, and in the middle we took some losses," said Kauffmann. "Overall, they're doing very well. But I'm a perfectionist and I'm very picky, so very good is just not good enough."

The No. 8 Wildcats (19-8, 6-4 SEC) are in the midst of yet another terrific season as they battle through the war that is Southeastern Conference men's tennis. They have eight wins against current top-25 teams including two wins against teams in the top six in No. 3 Georgia and No. 6 Ole Miss. UK also boasts two players in the top 25 in the singles rankings in senior team captain No. 19 Anthony Rossi and No. 21 Tom Jomby.

Those two upperclassmen along with junior Grant Roberts have been given a little extra burden to carry this season as Kauffmann has been forced to fill half of his singles lineup with freshmen. With the loss of junior Alejandro Gomez to injury earlier this year, the lineup got much younger and inexperienced. It also made Kauffmann's job more challenging as UK looks for a strong finish to its regular season.

In Gomez's absence, Kauffmann would like to see a bit more urgency, especially from his younger players, heading into the postseason.

"We've had to do it quicker since we lost Gomez," said Kauffmann. "I have three freshmen in my lineup out of six. It's not easy. My freshmen sometimes act like freshmen. It's OK because they're freshmen, but I don't accept it.

"You can see if you come to a match that there is a difference in the body language in my freshmen than to Rossi or Grant Roberts. You can see the difference. What I want to see not just through one through six, but one through 12, is the way you conduct yourself on the court and how you take care of business every day, and not just talking about it."

Kauffmann, who is enjoying his first season as head coach after serving as an assistant coach to former head coach Dennis Emery since 2005, says things haven't changed all that much in his new role, but there have been plenty of challenges in following up last year's SEC regular-season championship.

The biggest challenge heading into the season was finding out if returning players like Rossi and Jomby would be able to handle the roles of No. 1 and No. 2 in the UK singles lineup with UK great Eric Quigley and fellow senior Alex Musialek departing last year. Fortunately for Kauffmann, while those departed players are irreplaceable in many respects, Rossi and Jomby have filled a very deep void and helped make Kauffmann's transition to head coach smoother than expected.

"Rossi and Tom have done a good job replacing the one and two spots," said Kauffmann. "They're very, very good. What Quigley and Musialek did was show up in the big matches and the big moments, especially in the postseason. They came up big.

"I expect Tom and Anthony to do the same in the coming weeks. But they've done a tremendous job filling those shoes."

The shoes left by Emery for Kauffmann were oversized as well because Kauffmann's first match as head coach at UK would be his first as a head coach at the collegiate level.

Emery had basically built the entire men's tennis program from the ground up in his 30-year career as the UK tennis head coach, acquiring legendary status in amassing 655 wins and 23 NCAA Tournament appearances, and is responsible for nearly half of UK's all-time wins. He also lays claim to two SEC championships.

Kauffmann, however, has remained true to himself and the lessons he'd learned from Emery while coaching by his side for the last eight seasons while also playing for him for four as a Wildcat. Not much, other than some extra office duties, has changed the way Kauffmann handles his business. He has, however, found losses a little more difficult to deal with in his new role.

"I don't feel that much different," said Kauffmann. "I maybe just blame myself a little bit more which is normal. If something goes wrong or we lose, I can tell the guys you didn't do this right or wrong, I kind of blame myself first. What could I have done better for this kid to play better and do more of, which is good."

What Kauffmann has come to realize, however, is that there is more to being a tennis coach than coaching tennis. He's learned that there's more to being a student-athlete than just being an athlete. He's taken it upon himself to improve the lives of everyone in and around his program no matter who they are or what they do.

Whether it's improving the skill of the last man on the team or having a roster full of gentlemen, Kauffmann wants his players to constantly grow. That's what he claims is his job.

"I pay a little bit more attention to everybody on the team," said Kauffmann now that he is a head coach. "Even when people are not playing, at the end of the day, I know my job is measured on wins and losses and how we do in the SEC, but I try as a head coach to do more than that.

"I try to make them grow and attack them as much what they do on the tennis court as much as saying 'hi' to people, looking them in the eye, opening the door for the ladies."

As far as results go, he's doing his job just fine. No, the Wildcats won't win the regular-season conference title this year as Georgia has already clinched, but there is plenty of optimism left for a successful postseason run.

With the SEC Championships just around the corner and only three regular-season matches left, Kauffmann wants his team to start preparing for the postseason by treating the remaining matches as such with challenges on the road at Florida and South Carolina.

"We talk about (the postseason) at the beginning of the season," said Kauffmann. "A little bit of reminding when I feel it's not good enough. I just want them to treat each match like it is postseason. I think that's why Virginia, who is the No. 1 team, has not lost this season. They don't take anyone for granted in their play. That's what I'm looking for from me and this team."

As the conclusion of his first full season as head coach draws near, Kauffmann hopes this team has learned from some of the mistakes it's made along the way as they strive to be a perfect, finished product by season's end. He also knows his team has what it takes to be good enough and to reach the standards he's set for them. If he does his job to the best of his ability, year No. 1 for Kauffmann may finish with a perfect ending.

"Yes, I believe they can win the SEC Tournament," said Kauffmann. "I think they can win at the end of the year. It's going to be physical and mental and all those things, but talent-wise, I think we have enough on the tennis court to do it. After that, I have to do a good job."

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