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COLUMN: Kentucky men’s tennis freshmen and their role in undefeated SEC season

Samuel Colmar
Kentucky freshman Matt Rankin hits the ball during the Kentucky vs Notre Dame mens tennis match on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 4-0. Photo by Sydney Yonker | Staff

Kentucky men’s tennis saw new heights last year, winning an SEC Championship and going on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. 

However, many questioned what the future held with the loss of All-American Liam Draxl, now a professional tennis player, as well as several upperclassmen. 

The Wildcats did some work in the offseason, earning the No. 3 spot in the Tennis Recruiting Network’s Class of 2023 rankings. 

This freshman class included Matt Rankin, Jack Loutit and Eli Stephenson. 

Rankin was the No.1 LTA ranked player (U18) in Great Britain, Loutit was the No. 1 ranked player from New Zealand and Stephenson was the No. 1 ranked high school player in Kentucky.  

Cats fans had no idea what this squad was to become. 

With the regular season finished, these three have proven themselves as the best freshman class in the nation, with a combined 34-8 singles record, a combined record of 14-4 against conference opponents and multiple game winning clinches. 

In fact, Stephenson and Loutit featured two of the best singles records in the SEC.

Rankin and Loutit are also frequent doubles players, where they hold 13 combined wins with their respective duos. 

Associate head coach Matthew Gordon praised the new Wildcats after Kentucky’s doubleheader against Dayton on Feb. 21.

“Well, one, they’re good players,” Gordon said. “Two, they’ve adjusted to the culture really, really well. They work hard.” 

Kentucky freshman Jack Loutit hits the ball during the Kentucky vs. Virginia mens tennis match on Sunday Feb. 4, 2024, at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 4-3. Photo by Sydney Yonker | Staff (Sydney Yonker)

Looking back, there are several things to note about the preseason rankings. 

The top five recruiting classes featured the Georgia Bulldogs at No. 1, Stanford at No. 2, and Harvard and South Carolina at No. 4 and No. 5 behind Kentucky. 

Kentucky, who faced Georgia on April 12, had several head-to-head matchups between its first years. 

Loutit and Georgia’s Cyrus Mahjoob faced off, but went unfinished and served as a filler game, with Kentucky leading 3-1 in the match and two other Cats likely to clinch. 

Mahjoob also faced off against Rankin in doubles, where the Bulldogs won 7-6 in a tiebreaker. 

The Georgia freshmen stalemated against Kentucky, but still did not feature the season achievements that the Cats do. 

Kentucky got the 4-1 win against Georgia. After the match, head coach Cedric Kauffman made a key point about his freshmen class. 

“They adapt, and every match is so different in the SEC,” Kauffman said. “I think they’re enjoying the state of Kentucky.” 

The Stanford freshmen featured a negative record against nationally ranked opponents in singles play this season and have only played several doubles matches each. 

Harvard’s freshman class, highlighted by Cooper Williams who ranks No. 12 in singles and No. 7 in doubles, didn’t see much action against the Wildcats. Williams was the only Harvard freshman to play against Kentucky on Feb. 9, losing in both doubles and singles. 

Stephenson won his doubles and singles match at Harvard. Loutit, despite the singles loss, was facing senior Ronan Jachcuk, who has one of the best singles records at Harvard. Rankin did not play. 

Kentucky won 5-2 on the road, boosting them inside the Top 10 of the ITA rankings. 

South Carolina’s freshman class matched up well against Kentucky despite Rankin and Stephenson both being out of the lineup. Jelani Sarr and Sean Darayabeigi for the Gamecocks went 1-1 in singles and won their match together in doubles. 

Rankin and Stephenson, if in the lineup, would probably have faced off against Sarr and Daraybeigi, who play frequently on the same courts as them. 

The Wildcats won 4-3 on the road in Columbia, South Carolina. 

This impressive play from this year’s freshman class has helped the Wildcats hold a 21-2 regular season record, reach the best program conference record in over a decade and earn the title of SEC regular season champs.

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Samuel Colmar, Assistant Photo Editor

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