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Men's tennis upperclassmen bound for Sweet 16, hungry for more

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UK's No. 1 Anthony Rossi won in straight sets to help UK advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK's No. 1 Anthony Rossi won in straight sets to help UK advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The first round of the NCAA Tournament served as a warm-up for the Wildcats. They handled Western Michigan and knocked off some rust after having three weeks off from competition.

The win gave the Cats the chance to advance to the second round but also see how they would respond to such a short layoff between matches. And then rain moved in to the Lexington area and forced all four teams to play indoors at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex.

On Saturday, UK was matched with the region's No. 3 seed in Virginia Tech, a team that had been hot and just pulled off an upset over No. 2 seed Michigan. The Wildcats looked even sharper after getting a match under their belts and getting back outside.

"The first day was pretty tough," said senior Anthony Rossi. "We've practiced for the last two weeks outside, so it was tough to adjust. I think today everybody played much better, so that was a good day."

Rossi, Kentucky's No. 1 singles player and No. 5 nationally, looked the part Saturday after defeating Virginia Tech's Amerigo Contin in straight sets (6-0, 6-2). Getting back outside was key to his success.

"I was struggling a little bit yesterday inside," said Rossi. "It was tough to adjust. I have to give credit to (Western Michigan's Nadin Indre). He played a good match."

Rossi and Indre were still in the middle of their second set when junior Grant Roberts clinched the match Friday for the Wildcats. Saturday, Rossi finished up early and had a chance to watch Roberts perform the same task to send Kentucky to its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.

Next to Rossi on the main courts, junior Tom Jomby continued his dominance and made quick work of Tech's Andreas Bjerrehus (6-1, 6-2).

With Rossi and Jomby singles victories paired with their doubles point they earned, Kentucky led 3-1 and needed one more point for the victory. And once again, it was Roberts with a chance to clinch an NCAA Tournament victory for the second consecutive day.

"I'm just playing with a lot of confidence right now," said Roberts. "I've just been working on my game and being more aggressive. It's just been paying off."

In the most crucial time of the season, Kentucky's upperclassmen are taking the reins. With three freshmen in the singles lineup and key components of the doubles lineups, the postseason is the time for the veterans to step up and lead their team to victory. They're doing just that.

"It's important because we have to show the example every day," said Rossi. "We have to show them that even if we won the doubles today the match was not over."

But for all intents and purposes, it wasn't long after Kentucky won that doubles point that the match would end. Kentucky appears to be playing some of its best tennis of the year and peaking at the right moment.

"Our one-two punch is very tough," said UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann. "Grant is back into shape, Beck (Pennington) has been playing really, really well. He's turning into a leader. Kevin (Lai)'s been playing really good."

Though Kentucky came up short of its goal of winning a championship during the season, there is still one out there to be had. Going to its fourth straight Sweet 16 - the first under Kauffmann - gives the Cats validation that they are one of the best tennis programs in the country.

"We're one of the elites for sure, and it's only getting better," said Roberts. "We've had some great years, but I think Cedric's definitely going to keep building and getting this program better and better until we're top five and making Final Fours, finals and hopefully winning championships."

Kentucky now has an opportunity to move one step closer to that coveted championship: the NCAA Tournament title. That can only happen, however, if their next match in the round of 16 is the most important one on their schedule.

"We're going to put all of our eggs in one basket," said Kauffmann. "Our championship is against the team that we're going to play. I don't care about the other 14 teams in the draw. We'll just look at who we play and we'll try to knock them out."

No. 8 Kentucky will play the tournament's No. 9 seed Duke in the Sweet 16 in Urbana, Ill., on the campus of the University of Illinois on May 16 at 7 p.m. With Kentucky missing out on its championship so far this season, the Cats will have to get through the Blue Devils to win their coveted title. But after missing out on all three, the Wildcats are more than motivated to rectify that situation before all is said and done.

"It definitely fuels our fire," said Roberts. "This is our last one. We're really hungry. We really want to go out on top especially for our senior, for Rossi who has been such a big part of this program for four years. We definitely want to send him out on a good note."

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