Kentucky mens tennis continues to prove itself as legitimate title contender


Samuel Colmar

Kentucky Wildcats junior Joshua Lapadat prepares to hit the ball during the No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 6 South Carolina mens tennis match on Thursday, March 2, 2023, at the Boone Tennis Complex in Lexington, Kentucky. South Carolina won 4-3. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff

Sara Gibson, Reporter

Kentucky mens tennis has been dominant in the 2023 season, remaining perfect through 12 matches before dropping its first to No. 3 TCU.

The team’s noteworthy performance on the court comes as little surprise to the collegiate tennis world after its Cinderella story arc to finish the 2022 season.  

Going into 2022, ITA preseason polls had Kentucky ranked No. 12, facing a difficult schedule with nine ranked opponents ahead of it.

Kentucky certainly had its doubters before the season and, after a loss to Florida in the SEC championship game, a deep run in the NCAA tournament seemed possible but unlikely.

After five long matches against the best teams college tennis had to offer, including the No. 1 seed in the tournament, TCU, Kentucky found itself playing for the National Championship against Virginia.

The storybook ending Kentucky dreamed of came to an abrupt end as it was swept in by the Cavaliers 4-0.

Despite the speed bump, the Wildcats wasted no time making a name for themselves this season, beating four top 25 opponents in their first 13 matches.

Kentucky has established itself as a powerhouse in college tennis for the 2023 season and, for a variety of reasons, the Cats are in a better place to win a national championship than they were one year ago.

Kentucky’s transfers have adjusted to the team well and stepped up big early on. Alafia Ayeni, a fifth-year senior transfer from Cornell, plays with pure strength and is currently the No. 31 singles player in the nation.

So far this season, Ayeni is 7-5 in doubles matches and 8-5 in singles with a key win over Duke’s Garrett Johns, who was No. 6 at the time.

Senior Taha Baadi from Wake Forest has also made an immediate impact for the Cats as he has yet to drop a singles match, going 9-0 thus far.

After clinching the win for the Wildcats over No. 1 Virgina, Baadi was named SEC player of the week.

“The new guys coming in you know they’ve really quickly established themselves as a part of the family this year,” junior JJ Mercer said to BBN tonight on Feb. 10.

Freshman Charlelie Cosnet has transitioned well and gone 6-2 in singles matches this spring and named SEC freshman of the week after going 2-1 in the ITA National Team Indoor Championships, securing Kentucky’s win over Florida.

Fellow freshman Jaden Weekes has also had a hot start to his Kentucky career, going 5-2 in singles matches and sparking the Wildcats’ comeback against in-state rival No. 23 Louisville after defeating Sergio Hernandez in straight sets.

For the Wildcats that were present for last season’s run, maintaining a high level of play has not been a problem either.

The 2021 National Player of the Year, No. 27 Liam Draxl, consistently plays on the top court for Kentucky, taking on some of the nation’s top competitors.

Draxl has delivered on the biggest stages, going 9-2 in singles play and 7-4 in doubles. Despite the team’s loss to TCU in the semifinals of the ITA National Team Indoor Championship, Draxl took down No. 13 Jake Fearnley.

The highest ranked singles player on the team, No. 23 Joshua Lapadat, has gone 9-2 in singles play so far this season, also going 7-1 with doubles partner Mercer.

The Lapadat-Mercer duo is currently ranked the No. 43 doubles pair in the country.

The increase in doubles success is a major step forward from last year’s team after the Wildcats lost the doubles point in four straight matches in the NCAA tournament.

Starting each match in a 1-0 hole put the Cats at a major disadvantage entering singles play throughout the tournament.

The chemistry of this year’s team is unmatched with the Cats being one of the loudest teams in college tennis.  

“When you love the coaching staff and you love your brothers, you love the school. It just makes it a lot easier to leave it all out there,” Draxl said after the team beat Duke to improve to 10-0.

The Kentucky sidelines are electric during matches with chants led by Draxl, echoing through the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center.  

During the clinching match point at home against Duke, Baadi said the team’s support helped him secure the win.  

“I was very grateful for the support of my teammates,” Baadi said after the match. “It made it so much easier.”

The final piece to the puzzle is the coaching by Kentucky native Cedric Kauffmann. The 2023 season is his eleventh as head coach, having taken the team to eight NCAA tournaments.

As a former professional player himself, Kauffmann understands each player is different and works to implement strategies to highlight individual strengths.

Vital to the team’s success, assistant coach Matthew Gordon, former ITA Regional Assistant Coach of the Year, brought in a top 10 recruiting class in 2019, which included Liam Draxl. 

Going on a 12-0 run to start the spring season, everything appears to be clicking for Kentucky mens tennis.

After the loss to TCU, Kentucky fell to No. 5 in the team rankings and will face three more teams currently ranked inside the top 25 during the regular season.  

Kentucky mens tennis returns to action on Thursday, March 2, as it takes on the No. 6 South Carolina Gamecocks.