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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."


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."

 
Senior Tom Jomby will lead No. 15 overall seed Kentucky into a first-round matchup with Denver on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Senior Tom Jomby will lead No. 15 overall seed Kentucky into a first-round matchup with Denver on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Ever since the 2013 season ended in the Sweet 16, the Kentucky men's tennis team has worked toward this point.

The Wildcats practiced and played for the right to host the first two rounds NCAA Tournament, ultimately realizing their goal when they were awarded the No. 15 overall seed.

Now set to open their NCAA run, the Cats plan to put the home-court edge they wanted so badly to good use.

"It helps us a lot," said senior Tom Jomby, who will be playing his final collegiate matches at the Boone Tennis Center. "When we have the momentum in here, I feel like we're really tough to beat. It's a big advantage so we're going to use it."

Of course, facing fourth-seeded Denver (12-10) in front of home fans at 3 p.m. ET on Friday will be a boost for UK. That's not the only way playing in Lexington helps.

"It's always better," head coach Cedric Kauffmann said. "Sleeping in your own bed, we know where to eat, we know our routines, we play in front of our fans and I think that helps us. I think this is a team that loves to play in front of people. We like it. We love to play in Lexington. You can see it in our record."

UK is 21-9 overall on the season, boasting a 15-3 record on its home court and 6-6 everywhere else. The Cats have home wins over No. 1 Ohio State, No. 8 Texas A&M, No. 17 Mississippi State and No. 21 Vanderbilt, a clear sign of the team's potential to make a deep tournament run.

The Cats will take the confidence built in those victories into the postseason and balance that with reminders of what can happen when they're not on their game. Barely a month ago, UK lost to an Alabama team that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament.

"We said that in the locker room and I also said that we've lost to teams outside the (top) 30," Kauffmann said. "We lost to Alabama on the road. We know what we can do and we also know what we cannot do."

Just as the Cats must guard against another such performance, they must be sure to not rely too heavily on their home court. When doubles play begins on Friday, UK will just be playing tennis.

"We know that doesn't mean much, really," Kauffmann said. "It just makes us play on our home court and three teams are going to try to take us out."

Denver will be the first team to take a shot at UK and Clemson or Purdue will follow, should the Cats advance. The Pioneers will look to duplicate their first-round performance of a year ago when they won their first-ever NCAA Tournament match on the road at No. 15 Florida.

"I know Denver is a really good team," Jomby said. "They beat Florida in the first round last year, so we're extremely into the process to get ready."

The Cats have had to tweak their approach a bit this season, as finals week has coincided with their week to prepare for the tournament. The result has been, in Kauffmann's estimation, a "good, not great" set of practices, though he is unconcerned about his team being ready to play come Friday.

Whether UK will play inside or out is the next question. With rain in the forecast on both Friday and Saturday, there stands a chance that matches could be moved inside.

"I think we are ready for both," Kauffmann said. "I'll tell players, 'Make sure you don't want to play in or out because if that doesn't work out, mentally I think you're not going to be ready.' "

Videos from the 2014 CATSPY Awards

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UK Athletics hosted the 12th annual CATSPY Awards on Monday in Memorial Coliseum, with student-athletes, coaches and staff dressing up to celebrate a memorable 2013-14. You can find all the award winner right here, but the highlight of the evening is always the video produced by Kentucky Wildcats TV. Check them all out below.

Happy Dance

Softball

Men's Tennis

Women's Soccer

Rifle

Track and Field

Men's Swimming and Diving

Women's Swimming and Diving

 
 

Video: Men's tennis postseason pump-up

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Live blog: Men's tennis vs. Florida

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