‘These guys are my best friends.’ The secret to UK’s historic run in NCAA tennis tourney.

·9 min read

Liam Draxl can still recall those freshman year memories.

The time spent living in campus dormitories, going through the acclimation process to a new city and school, meeting new people seemingly every day.

What sticks out most from that time in the Kentucky men’s tennis star’s life?

The people who went through those same experiences with him.

Specifically, Draxl — originally from Canada and now a junior on a UK men’s tennis team set to play its fifth-ever NCAA Tournament quarterfinal on Thursday — remembers going through those experiences with two other UK players from his recruiting class, Gabriel Diallo and Alexandre LeBlanc, also both from Canada.

“I think it helped coming in as freshmen. We don’t know a lot of people. . . . To have them in the dorms with me. We spent a lot of time together, met a lot of new people together,” Draxl told the Herald-Leader last week.

That feeling of freshman year camaraderie hasn’t left Draxl, and is often cited by Wildcats players as a reason for UK’s historic postseason run, one that’s still in progress.

“I love college tennis. I love Kentucky. I love the team here. These guys, they’re close friends of mine. It’s really enjoyable,” Draxl said. “It’s been so fun. I think this is probably the funnest time I’ll have playing tennis, in college tennis.”

UK (24-7) is the No. 8 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, which allowed the Cats to host three straight rounds of postseason play.

Kentucky has seen off DePaul, Northwestern and Wake Forest thus far, vaulting head coach Cedric Kauffmann’s team into the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals for just the fifth time in program history, and the first time since 2011.

Up next is No. 1 overall seed TCU at 4 p.m. EDT Thursday at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Champaign, Illinois, which will host the final rounds of the tournament.

As for the reasons why the UK men’s tennis team is enjoying its best postseason run in more than a decade (the Wildcats also reached the finals of the SEC Tournament), the close-knit nature of the team is a common answer.

“I think we’re just so close as a team and we all have the same goal which is to peak at the right time, which is this back end of the season,” said Millen Hurrion, a fifth-year student and also the team captain. “When you have a team that’s as close as us and everyone’s so dedicated and works as hard as us every day, I think you’re bound to be successful in the long run.”

Gabriel Diallo, a UK junior from Montreal, was named to the All-SEC First Team this season.
Gabriel Diallo, a UK junior from Montreal, was named to the All-SEC First Team this season.

International presence

Of the 12 players on the UK tennis roster, 10 were born in countries outside of the U.S.

This includes three of the players most important to UK’s success this season: Diallo, Draxl and Hurrion.

Diallo — a junior from Montreal — was previously unfamiliar with American college tennis and its decorum and scoring quirks.

“I wasn’t aware really of how big it is in the United States,” Diallo said of college tennis. “When I was 17, 18, I started to look up some videos on YouTube of college matches. . . . It was a huge deal, and I was like, ‘OK, I really want to do that.’”

One of Diallo’s coaches when he was a junior — Frédéric Niemeyer — played college tennis at Middle Tennessee State and later played professionally in doubles with Kauffmann, the UK head coach who is from France and played at Kentucky.

Niemeyer and Kauffmann remain close, and every year Kauffmann asks Niemeyer for the names of talented young players in Canada that he should consider recruiting.

One year, Diallo’s name was passed along.

Diallo said his parents don’t speak English well, so when Kauffmann came to Montreal to recruit him and was able to speak French with them, it made an impact.

“He said that I had a lot of potential, but my level was not there, and I needed to work hard,” Diallo recalled about Kauffmann’s recruiting pitch. “That’s what I like about him. He was honest and said it was not going to be easy, but he always believed in me and he always cared about me, more than about the program or about his job.”

Diallo’s freshman season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, making his rise up the college tennis rankings even more impressive.

Diallo reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Men’s Tennis Singles Tournament for individuals last year, and was an All-SEC First Team selection this season.

Diallo is 19-3 in singles matches this season, including wins in all three NCAA Tournament matches.

He’s also partnered with sophomore Joshua Lapadat (also Canadian) for a pair of doubles wins in the NCAA Tournament.

“First of all it’s trust within each other, from one through six, even guys that are not in the lineup, we have so much trust with each other and just our bonding,” Diallo said of this year’s UK team. “Practices sometimes are uncomfortable and they’re difficult, so I think that when you go into a match, then the match becomes a little bit more comfortable.”

Diallo will again play in the NCAA singles tournament this year, which will begin Monday, also in Champaign, Illinois, following the end of the men’s team event.

Liam Draxl, middle, celebrates with Gabriel Diallo after Diallo won his match against Wake Forest last Saturday. After the team tournament, Draxl and Diallo will represent Kentucky in NCAA singles play.
Liam Draxl, middle, celebrates with Gabriel Diallo after Diallo won his match against Wake Forest last Saturday. After the team tournament, Draxl and Diallo will represent Kentucky in NCAA singles play.

Draxl thriving in college atmosphere

Draxl, now a junior, is a few years removed from the freshman year memories made with Diallo and LeBlanc.

Wildcats fans probably remember Draxl from last spring, when — as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Men’s Tennis Singles Tournament — Draxl became the first UK player to reach the Final Four since 2012.

Draxl was named the SEC Newcomer of the Year last season. In December, he won his first professional singles tennis championship at the M15 Cancun tournament in Mexico, part of the International Tennis Federation World Tennis Tour.

Originally from Newmarket, Ontario, which is a northern suburb of Toronto, Draxl’s aims to be a pro tennis player once he leaves UK.

For now though, he’s enjoying the gratifying team success that has come with the maturity of this Kentucky team.

“We knew that this was probably the year we could do some damage,” Draxl said. “I think we’re a really close team. These guys are my best friends, my brothers and I think it’s more enjoyable working out with them, working hard and then going to battle with them. I think our culture is very good and we just thrive in it and we all become better tennis players.”

Draxl is one of the most vocal players on the Kentucky team, often playing to the crowd during home matches at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex and loudly pumping himself and his teammates up during matches.

This was particularly evident during a January home match against Louisville, as Draxl battled to one of his 14 singles wins on the season.

“When I go out and play a tennis match . . . it kind of just happens, it’s part of me, it’s my personality,” Draxl explained. “It’s all natural. It’s not toward any of my opponents or other schools. I’m just out there doing me.”

Like Diallo, Draxl will also be returning to the NCAA singles tournament.

Also an All-SEC First Team selection this season, Draxl is the No. 4 overall seed for this year’s singles tournament.

But first comes the chance to make history with his UK teammates.

What is said in the UK locker room about the chance to continue a historic postseason run?

“It goes unsaid,” Draxl said.

Millen Hurrion’s teammates run up to him in celebration after Hurrion won his singles match to clinch last weekend’s NCAA Sweet 16 victory over Wake Forest at UK.
Millen Hurrion’s teammates run up to him in celebration after Hurrion won his singles match to clinch last weekend’s NCAA Sweet 16 victory over Wake Forest at UK.

Hurrion takes long route

The team captain for Kentucky’s most successful season in 11 years began his tennis career in England, developed it in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and has continued it in Lexington.

Hurrion is in his fifth season of collegiate tennis after spending the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons at Gardner-Webb University, which is part of the Big South Conference.

In those two seasons, Hurrion was twice named to the All-Big South Conference First Team in both singles and doubles, paving the way for him to enter his name in the NCAA transfer portal and make the sizable jump in stature from Gardner-Webb to Kentucky.

“There wasn’t that pressure because we weren’t a big school or in a big conference, so I came here and also the size as well: 30,000, 40,000 students is much bigger compared to my school of 2,000 my first two years,” Hurrion said. “But I see it as a challenge and that’s what I wanted when I transferred. I wouldn’t want it another way.”

Originally from Weymouth, a seaside town on the south coast of England, Hurrion readily admits he was behind other junior players in England growing up.

By the age of 12 he knew American college tennis was a route he wanted to explore, despite never visiting the U.S. as a youth.

“I knew some older guys from England that did that route and I could see how they progressed,” Hurrion said. “Everyone spoke so highly of it and just the four years are so special here. Everyone had positive things to say so I always knew that was something I wanted to do.”

Those four years have become five for Hurrion, whose junior season (and first at Kentucky) was cut short due to the pandemic.

In the two seasons since, Hurrion has twice been named to the All-SEC Second Team. Like Diallo and Draxl in 2021, Hurrion was selected to play last year in the NCAA Men’s Tennis Singles Tournament, but withdrew prior to his opening match due to injury.

This season, Hurrion has a 20-7 singles record. The most recent of those victories served as the clinching point in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 win over Wake Forest, sending Hurrion sprawling on his back as he was mobbed by teammates in celebration.

In his role as team captain, Hurrion has tried to stress the future, not the past, with his UK teammates.

It’s worked so far.

“It doesn’t matter what Kentucky’s done in the last years or what they haven’t done,” Hurrion said prior to last weekend’s win over Wake Forest. “Just take each match as it comes and have fun with it.”

Liam Draxl, right, was an All-SEC First Team selection for the Wildcats this spring.
Liam Draxl, right, was an All-SEC First Team selection for the Wildcats this spring.

Thursday

No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 1 TCU

What: NCAA Tournament quarterfinal

When: 4 p.m. EDT

Where: Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Champaign, Illinois

Notes

This is UK’s fifth all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals. Kentucky has never advanced to the semifinals.

The Kentucky-TCU winner will face either No. 4 Ohio State or No. 5 Michigan in the national semifinals on Saturday.

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