The No. 8 seed Kentucky Wildcats (26-7) knocked off the No. 4 seed Ohio State Buckeyes (27-4) 4-1 in the Men’s NCAA Tennis Tournament semifinals on Saturday afternoon.
After dropping the doubles point, Kentucky used a dominant singles performance to take the match and punch their ticket to the program’s first-ever NCAA finals. Just as they did against #1 TCU in the previous round, the ‘Cats swept courts 1 through 4 in their path to victory over the Buckeyes. Despite losing the first set, Liam Draxl bounced back to pick up the clinching victory for Kentucky on the top court over Ohio State’s Cannon Kingsley 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Draxl is known for getting stronger as the match goes longer and using superior fitness to outlast opponents and a fiery demeanor to channel energy. Somebody should have told the Ohio State fans who were trying to get under his skin that giving Draxl more motivation is a bad thing for opponents. Draxl fired up the crowd and his teammates throughout his comeback victory.
“He was a lot more aggressive in the second and third sets,” UK Head coach Cedrick Kaufmann said about how Draxl turned the match around. “When he creates that energy it also leads into the other courts but it also helps him stay calm, actually.”
Playing indoors due to rain, Gabriel Diallo used a 130 MPH first serve and high-kicking second serve to power his way by Matej Vocel 6-3, 6-2 on court 2 to even the overall match at 1-1. Both types of serves frustrated the 13th-ranked Ohio State grad student.
Millen Hurrion quickly put the ‘Cats up 2-0 with a surprisingly dominant 6-1, 6-2 victory over JJ Tracy on court 3. Hurrion controlled the majority of the points against the previously undefeated Tracy. Neither Diallo nor Hurrion dropped a match in the NCAA tournament.
Francois Musitelli put Kentucky on the brink with a 6-4, 7-6 win over Jake Van Emburgh on court 4.
Finally it was just a matter of who would clinch the final point for Kentucky. Draxl was leading 5-2 in set three on the top court, while Josh Lapadat led Ohio State’s Justin Boulais 5-0 in the third set on court 5. Facing a deuce point, the #4 ranked Draxl came through with the victory over the #9 ranked Kingsley.
JJ Mercer, who transferred to UK from Ohio State, battled back from a challenging first set to take the second set 7-6. He was leading 3-1 when his match went unfinished early in the third. Mercer played some high-level tennis to win the second set breaker. Credit to him for playing well in a match most experts picked him to lose.
Like Mercer, Lapadat had also stormed back after dropping the first set. In fact UK went 6-0 against the Buckeyes in the second set of every match.
Ohio State claimed the doubles as the Buckeyes broke serve in the second game on courts 1 and 3 and never looked back. Kingsley and Tracy upped their record to 20-2 with a 6-1 win over Draxl and Alex LeBlanc on court 3. Robert Cash and Vocel, ranked #2 in the country, gave OSU the doubles point with a a 6-3 victory on court 1 over Millen Hurrion and Francois Musitelli. UK’s Gabriel Diallo and Josh Lapadat were in a close 4-4 battle when the court 2 match was suspended.
UK has now dropped the doubles point in three straight NCAA matches, but beating the ‘Cats in singles is a whole different animal.
Kentucky, which lost 4-0 in Columbus to the Buckeyes, looked like a different team today. They are certainly peaking at the right time.
Kaufmann said his squad learned from the tough loss in Columbus.
“The last two, three weeks we have been getting much better. Mentally stable. Poised. Playing our game. Being aggressive. I felt like we were a little bit more aggressive in the big moments today.”
Kentucky will play the winner of No. 6 Tennessee and No. 7 Virginia on Sunday at 4 PM EST at the Kahn Tennis Center on the University of Illinois campus for the 2022 national title.
UK defeated Tennessee 4-3 and lost to Virginia 4-2 at home in the regular season. UVA has won four national championships (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017.) UT has made the finals three times, most recently in 2010, but never won.
If you can’t make the five-hour trip from Lexington, watch on the TennisOne app for free. Diallo and Draxl will play in the NCAA singles tournament, which starts Monday at the same location. Draxl will be the No. 4 seed.
No. 1 Doubles: #55 Musitelli/Hurrion (UK) LOST TO #2 Vocel/Cash 3-6
No. 2 Doubles: Diallo/Lapadat (UK) VS Boulais/Lutschaunig 4-4
No. 3 Doubles: Draxl/LeBlanc (UK) LOST TO Kingsley/Tracy 1-6
Order of Finish: 3, 1
No. 1 Singles: #4 Liam Draxl (UK) DEF #9 Cannon Kingsley 2-6, 6-3, 6-2
No. 2 Singles: #21 Gabriel Diallo (UK) DEF #13 Matej Vocel 6-3, 6-2
No. 3 Singles: #83 Millen Hurrion (UK) DEF #19 JJ Tracy 6-1, 6-2
No. 4 Singles: Francois Musitelli (UK) DEF #127 Jake Van Emburgh 6-4, 7-6 (4)
No. 5 Singles: Joshua Lapadat (UK) vs Justin Boulais 3-6, 6-1, 5-0
No. 6 Singles: JJ Mercer (UK) vs Andrew Lutschaunig 2-6, 7-6 (3), 3-1
Order of Finish: 2, 3, 4, 1