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Long layoff no problem as men's tennis advances to NCAA second round

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With no matches to play, the Kentucky men's tennis team went to work.

Since they were ousted in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on April 19, the Wildcats have bounced between on-court training, intense conditioning and schoolwork.

"It was kind of weird," Tom Jomby said. "We haven't been playing for a while. So the past three weeks we've been grinding a lot, working on some doubles stuff with the coaches and we have five seniors so we all have to focus on school."

With the end of the semester coinciding with his team's week of preparation leading up the NCAA Tournament, Cedric Kauffmann admits he was concerned entering his team's first-round matchup with Denver on Friday.

"You're a little bit nervous after two-and-a-half weeks of not playing and exams through this week fell a little in a bad spot," Kauffmann said.

As play began against a Pioneer team that had only lost the doubles point three times all season, the anxiety intensified. UK and Denver battled through tight matches on all three courts, with the Cats winning on No. 1 and falling on No. 2. Attention then shifted to court three, where Ryuji Hirooka and Nils Ellefsen eked out an 8-6 win.

Close as the doubles point was, it proved to be just an opportunity for UK to shake off some rust.

"I don't think we played great in the doubles, but I think we--it was an hour of tennis for us to get back with the nerves," Kauffmann said. "I think it just carried through the singles. I think our singles was good."

That might be an understatement.

The Cats (22-9) won the opening set on all six courts, with Alejandro Gomez, Jomby and Beck Pennington winning in straight sets to clinch a 4-0 sweep of Denver (12-11) and a spot in the round of 32. Gomez and Jomby -- UK's top two singles players -- were dominant. Both won 6-1, 6-2.

Jomby particularly enjoyed his performance, as his parents made the trip from his native France to Lexington to watch him play for just the second time. The first time was two years ago, and Jomby lost both his singles and doubles matches against Baylor that day.

"When I could see my dad next to the court, it was really fun," Jomby said. "He was taking pictures of me and it's really nice having them here. It gives you extra motivation and it's so special to be able to play here in front of my parents and all of my friends in America when I'm from France."

Jomby made his singles win look easier than it was.

"Even if the singles didn't seem really tough for us, it was a tough match," Jomby said. "We had to keep our focus, we had to keep the momentum and it's not really easy when you win 6-1 to stay focused in the second set."

The Cats will now look to duplicate that focus at 3 p.m. on Saturday, when they host Clemson (21-8). The Tigers handled Purdue earlier on Friday, 4-1, and were in contention to host an NCAA regional until the season's last match.

"Can they beat us?" Kauffmann said. "Yeah, if we don't come to play. If one or two of our players doesn't show up, it's going to be tough. But I think we'll show up tomorrow."

Kauffmann means that figuratively, but he'll also spend some time watching the door before the match to make sure Jomby shows up literally.

Jomby -- one singles victory shy of joining the prestigious 100-win club -- will walk across the stage and receive his degree at commencement at 1 p.m. on Saturday. He expects to finish by 1:30, race to the Boone Tennis Center and arrive by 1:45 on a day he's not likely to soon forget.

"I'll be wearing my cap and gown probably when I get here, but I'll go straight to the locker room," Jomby said. "It'll be funny."

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