Jan. 22, 2011
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The University of Kentucky men's tennis team had one of the best seasons in school history last year, posting a school-record 25 wins and advancing to the NCAA Championships round of 16. But regardless of what the 2010 team accomplished, the 2011 edition believes it has some unfinished business.
"This year, we want to take our program to the next level," said Dennis Emery, who is entering his 29th season as the Kentucky head coach. "Our players feel like we are a much better team this year than we were last year and I agree. From that standpoint, I think our players feel like there is some unfinished business and I know that is very cliché to say. We feel that we could have done a little more last year and we are anxious to get on with that."
Taking the UK program to the next level is something that Emery has done since he first stepped foot on campus in 1983. Since Emery took over the program, the Wildcats have finished the season ranked in the top 25 a total of 22 of his 28 years, including five top-10 finishes. Emery has led the Wildcats to top-16 final rankings 15 times in the last 24 years.
"I am proud of where this program is but there are still things that we need to accomplish," Emery said. "A good goal for us this year would be to get to the Final Four of the NCAA Championships. We got to the round of 16 last year, and with the talent level this team has and the experience that this team has, I think a Final Four would be a good goal for us."
Kentucky returns a majority of last year's team, including All-Americans Eric Quigley and Brad Cox along with senior Alberto Gonzalez and junior Alex Musialek. The Wildcats checked several goals off the list last season, including advancing the school to the NCAA Championships round of 16 for the first time since 2002. But Emery said this year's team is hungry for more.
"I don't think that it is going to be hard to get this team hungry again to reach our goals this season," Emery said. "We are a team that last year that was very young and now we are going to be starting two seniors and at least two juniors. I feel like we have kind of crossed the experience gap there."
Quigley will lead the Cats again this season as he enters the 2011 spring schedule as the second-ranked player in the nation, according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association preseason singles rankings. The native of Pewee Valley, Ky., had a very good fall season, where he advanced to the finals of some very competitive tournaments, including the D'Novo/ITA All-American Championships and the Southeastern Conference Coaches Indoor Championships.
"I don't think there is any question that when you have somebody who has had as much success as Eric has had that it can bring up your overall program," Emery said. "The good thing about Eric's success is he has done it so much the right way. He is very blue collar and is someone who is a great sportsman and does everything right. I think that is even better for your young players to see. They can see that if you do things the right way you can have the same success as he has had."
Another key part of the Kentucky program has been Musialek, who has wins in his career against the No. 1 and No. 3 players in the country when he beat then-No. 1 JP Smith of Tennessee in 2009 and then-No. 3 Michael Shabaz of Virginia last season. The native of Dax, France is ranked 39th in the country heading into the 2011 spring season after a good fall campaign and a strong showing at the NCAA Singles Championships last year. Musialek posted seven wins this fall, advancing to the quarterfinals of the USTA/ITA Ohio Valley Regional Championship and the SEC Coaches Indoor Championship.
While Quigley and Musialek’s success has been unmatched in what it has done for the program, Emery said the Wildcats are trying to build depth to the program. Emery believes last year’s teams success hinged on the consistent play of Gonzalez and then-freshman Anthony Rossi.
"Last year, Gonzalez probably took his game up two levels from being a 50-percent winner his first two years at No. 5 and No. 6 to being a 75-percent winner at No. 5," Emery said. "Anthony Rossi was also a pleasant surprise. We anticipated him coming in and being able to play six and be a solid six for us. Instead he was a 70-percent winner at No. 4. That was the key to our season, Rossi and Gonzalez winning at No. 4 and No. 5 singles. While Eric and Alex had great seasons and did great things, the keys to our team were the unsung heroes in Rossi and Gonzalez at four and five."
While Quigley will be Kentucky's strongest player in singles at the No. 1 position, Cox and Gonzalez will join the effort in being the team leaders. Cox, the team captain will play the most pivotal role in leading the team. The senior from Duluth, Ga., has had a very successful career as a Wildcat, becoming the first player in school history to advance to three consecutive NCAA Doubles Championships.
"I think that it is important to have leaders like Brad and Alberto on our team," Emery said. "Brad is our team captain and is consistently been a good leader for us. The thing about our team is that we have a bunch of guys that are leaders in their own ways. While Brad is clearly our go-to guy in that department, we have a bunch of players that fulfill those rolls."
Because of the leadership at the top of the team, the Wildcats have developed strong team chemistry, which is one of reasons Emery feels good about his team's chances to do great things. Emery said another reason is his team being one of the most physically talented teams in the country.
"We have a very physically-talented team," Emery said. "We don't have a bunch of guys that are just good tennis players because they have played since they were 6 years old and understand the game. Those are not the type of players that we have right now. We have players that are very good athletes and are very physical in the way that they play. Our guys are very aggressive in their mindset and how they attack the game. Those are exciting guys to coach. From that standpoint we are as good as anybody in the country."
Kentucky will have to be both mentally and physically tough in 2011 as one of the toughest schedules in the country awaits the Wildcats. Of Kentucky's 30 opponents in 2011, 21 are ranked in the ITA preseason poll, including all 11 SEC opponents. UK will face 18 top-50 teams, including top-20 foes No. 1 Virginia, No. 3 Tennessee, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 9 Florida, No. 11 Georgia, No. 16 Illinois and No. 18 Ole Miss.
"We pride ourselves in playing one of the toughest schedules in the country and this year it is very tough," Emery said. "What is bad about our schedule this year is that a lot of our matches against teams ranked No. 12 to No. 30 are on the road, particularly in the SEC. That is a real source of concern because some of the toughest places to play in the country is where we have to go and play this year."
Emery believes five matches in particular will be key to the Wildcats' success this season, going on the road to face tough SEC and nonconference opponents in Florida, Illinois, Ole Miss, No. 31 Auburn and No. 41 Mississippi State.
"Those five matches are really going to be swing matches for us this season," Emery said. "For us to win the conference, we really have to perform well and win those matches. For us to have a good seeding at the NCAA Championships, we have to have a good record in those matches. Those teams will all be top-25 teams at the end of the year when we play them."
Although the road will be tough for UK this season, home has been nothing of the sort the last two seasons. Kentucky has posted an impressive 28-6 record at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex in dual matches since the start of the 2009 season. Last year, Kentucky was 18-2 at home, while in 2009 UK posted a 10-4 record. The Wildcats have not lost a regular-season nonconference match at home since losing to No. 5 Ohio State in April 2009.
"We love playing at home and take pride in defending our home court," Emery said. "We have some great home matches this spring against some really good teams and it would be great to see Boone filled with Kentucky blue."