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Unfazed by Jomby's injury, men's tennis rides unlikely comeback into Sweet 16

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UK rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Clemson to clinch a sixth straight Sweet 16 trip. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Clemson to clinch a sixth straight Sweet 16 trip. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's streak of five consecutive Sweet 16 trips was very much in jeopardy.

After the Wildcats dropped a hotly contested doubles point, action was underway in singles when Tom Jomby came up lame. Favoring his left foot, UK's star senior tried to play on.

It only took him a few points to realize he simply could not.

"Just the way it happened, I think we lost some air," UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann said. "We saw Tom kind of get hurt a little bit, go back in the curtain, came back to the chair and he said, 'Listen, I felt something snap.' "

Jomby made the only decision he could, retiring from match against Clemson's Hunter Harrington that was tied two games apiece in the second set. Just like that, UK was down 2-0.

Beck Pennington would get UK on the board soon after on court three, but No. 2 singles player Alejandro Gomez then quickly lost to put the Cats in a 3-1 hole. Jerry Lopez was cruising to a straight-set victory on court four, but UK still appeared in trouble with Kevin Lai down a set at No. 5.

Lai sensed it.

"I was really nervous," Lai said. "After he took the first set and I saw Gomez, our second singles, lost, I was just thinking--I know our number six is going to play faster than me so I know I have no choice. I have to win. That's what I was thinking because if I lose that means the whole team loses. I tried to step up for the team."

Knowing the burden was on his shoulders, Lai could have folded. The sophomore could have let the responsibility become too much for him.

But steadied by Kauffmann -- who spent most of the latter half of Saturday's match coaching Lai -- the Taiwan native stepped up just as he tried to do.

"I think he was down on himself a little bit after the first set and he doesn't want to let his whole team down and we're a family," Kauffmann said. "So I think he takes it maybe a little harder than if it's just him. But we told him, 'Settle down. Let's have this game plan. Let's keep it going. No matter what the score is, you're going to do this, do that.'

"I thought he did a good job. At times he gave us some heart attacks because he didn't listen, but overall I think he did a great job."

Lai was a different player in the final two sets, wearing down Clemson's Luke Johnson with an array of shot-making that made him look much bigger than his 5-foot-9 frame. He rallied to win his match 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, but technique wasn't the reason why.

"It's not really about tennis today for me," Lai said. "It's about mental toughness. If I want to stay and play or if I want to let it go."

It was that attitude that defined the Cats in their remarkable 4-3 comeback victory. Even though the doubles point didn't go their way and senior stalwarts Jomby and Gomez lost on courts one and two, precocious sophomores Lai and Pennington and freshman Jerry Lopez would not go away.

"Those seniors take a lot of responsibility to carry the youngsters," Lai said. "But when the seniors have a rough day like this then the youngters gotta help them too."

Then senior Grant Roberts finished it off on court six as he has so many times throughout his career.

"We trust Grant with our lives at six," Kauffmann said.

When Roberts finished off his 6-2, 6-1 win, it touched off a celebration befitting a Sweet 16 berth, though Jomby's injury dampened the enthusiasm just a bit.

"We were very happy in the locker room," Kauffmann said. "We told them how proud we were, but we were very sad for him."

In the coming days, Jomby's injury will be evaluated. It's too soon to tell whether he will be available when UK faces either No. 2 Oklahoma or Harvard on May 16 in Athens, Ga.

Should the Cats be without their top player, they know what they have to do.

"If we lose Tom, which I hope we don't, then somebody's going to have to step up," Kauffmann said. "That's just the way it is."

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