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Men's tennis planning to peak in NCAAs

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Cedric Kauffmann leads UK into the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a head coach starting on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Cedric Kauffmann leads UK into the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a head coach starting on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Since the moment he took over 10 months ago, Cedric Kauffmann has been planning for this moment. All along, the first-year Kentucky head coach has been trying to position his team to play its best tennis in the NCAA Tournament.

That doesn't mean exactly what it sounds like though.

The Wildcats aren't going to paint the line with every shot. Not everything will go their way now that every match could be the last one of the season. What Kauffmann has been working toward is his team understanding that and knowing how to best deal with it.

"I never have six guys playing their best tennis in one match, but what I mean by 'best tennis' is knowing what to do when you're not playing your best," Kauffmann said.

On Friday, No. 8 UK (20-11) will open the NCAA Tournament at home - the fifth straight time the Wildcats have hosted to open NCAA play - against Western Michigan (19-9). When the first ball is served in doubles play at around 3 p.m. ET, Kauffmann knows it's unlikely all of his players will be at their peak; the goal is to grind through whatever happens.

"Am I going to have two, three guys that play very good tennis? Yeah, we're going to have to." Kauffmann said. "But I know I'm going to have one or two or three guys that are not going to play their best tennis and they're going to have to get through it."

During the fall, Anthony Rossi was having trouble with that. He looked around and saw that he was the only senior on the roster, that former stars Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek were no longer there to fill the top two spots in the lineup. Sensing that void, Rossi tried to step up, bearing the responsibility for an inexperienced group.

It wasn't working.

An inconsistent fall caused Rossi to drop from a No. 12 all the way to No. 94 in national singles rankings. By thinking first about his team, Rossi neglected himself and his own game. With the help of his coach, Rossi has found the right balance during the spring.

"I'm doing much better than the beginning of the season," Rossi said. "During the fall I was maybe focusing too much on the team and not on myself and that's why I dropped from 12 to 94. Now I'm doing first a better job on myself and then taking care of the team."

In turn, Rossi has excelled, running up a 22-5 spring record and ascending to No. 5 in the rankings. No. 2 singles player Tom Jomby has followed suit and joined Rossi as a First-Team All-Southeastern Conference honoree.

"I think we have one of the strongest one-two punches in the country when they're ready to play," Kauffmann said.

Entering the postseason, Rossi and Jomby will look to raise their game once more. With a freshmen-laden back of the rotation behind them, UK's two veterans will need to set the tone, particularly with unfamiliar opponents coming to Lexington for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament this week. After Western Michigan, UK faces a possible Saturday matchup with either No. 23 Michigan (16-9) or No. 42 Virginia Tech (15-9), neither of which the Cats have played in the recent past.

With that in mind, the Cats plan to think about themselves more than their opponents.

"Focusing on your game because we don't know much about them, they don't know much about us," Rossi said. "So just focus on your game one point at a time and that's about it."

Though Western Michigan, Michigan and Virginia Tech are all unknown, none of them figure to be able to throw anything at the Cats that they haven't already seen. UK has played an incredible 17 matches in 2013 against teams currently ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's top 20.

"That's something that Coach (Dennis) Emery kind of taught me a little bit," Kauffmann said. "If you really want to be good, you gotta play a strong schedule that gets you ready for the end of the year."

It's now time for the Wildcats to find out exactly how well prepared they are.

"There is a little bit of pressure, but it's a really good pressure," Jomby said.

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