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After dropping the first set of his national semifinals match to No. 9 Blaz Rola, University of Kentucky men’s tennis senior Eric Quigley responded in a big way, winning the second set in convincing fashion before clinching the match with a thrilling win in a third set tiebreaker to advance to the NCAA Singles Championship Final on Sunday at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga.
“Eric got off to a slow start and you are just hoping that he sinks his teeth into the match and fights back,” UK head coach Dennis Emery said. “He grabbed a break there early in the second set and that really swung the momentum of the match. I thought that Coach (Cedric) Kauffmann did a great job of making some adjustments on court. Eric started to return the ball a lot better the second set and when he can simplify the match to where all he has to do is execute, then he is tough to beat. He was able to do that today and it really set up his offense well. It was just another great performance for him.”
The victory for Quigley in the semifinals moves him into the finals for the first time in his career and only the third time in school history. The UK star joins fellow All-Americans Jesse Witten and Carlos Drada as the only players to advance to the finals of the singles event. Witten was the last to claim the feat, making the finals of the event in 2002, while Drada made the finals in 2000. Witten and Drada both lost in the finals. Kentucky players are now 3-0 all-time in the NCAA Singles Semifinals.
This is the second career finals appearance for Quigley in a collegiate grand slam. Quigley advanced to the finals of the D’Novo/Intercollegiate Tennis Association All-American Championships in 2010 to become only the sixth UK player to advance to a collegiate grand slam singles or doubles final. Quigley is now the second player in school history to advance to two grand slam finals, joining Witten, who went to the 2002 NCAA Singles Final and the 2004 ITA National Indoor Singles Finals.
Quigley, who is ranked third in the nation in singles and seeded third in the tournament, will face the nation’s No. 1 player in Steve Johnson of Southern California in the final Monday at Noon ET.
Quigley and Johnson have not faced each other this season, but met once last season with Johnson earning the win. The matchup came in the 2011 NCAA Elite Eight matchup between UK and USC with Johnson taking down Quigley at the No. 1 singles position 6-4, 6-2.
“It doesn’t get any easier does it,” Quigley said about playing Johnson in the finals. “His record speaks for itself and he is a great player. I have done a great job this week of taking it one match at a time and I have to do the same tomorrow. I am just going to try to keep the same routine and play as relaxed as I can.”
Johnson, who has spent most the season ranked No. 1 in the nation and was voted the national winner of the ITA Senior Player of the Year Award, defeated 2010 NCAA Singles Champion Bradley Klahn of Stanford in the semifinal to punch his ticket to the finals. Johnson has won an impressive 71 consecutive singles match, last losing Jan. 17, 2011.
Rola, who is ranked in the top 10 in the nation in singles, jumped out to a big lead in the match, earning several breaks in the first set to win 6-2, which was the first set Quigley had lost in the tournament. After some adjustments in his game plan, Quigley come out firing in the second set, winning six of the seven games to grab the second set 6-1 and force a decisive third set.
“Our game plan coming in was to make him play his forehand and he came out and was hitting some big forehands so we had to make a change,” Quigley said. “Coach Kauffmann made the minor change of playing his backhand more and I also picked up my game a little bit and it really helped in the second set.”
“We had a game plan going into the match and after Eric got down in the first set we switched it and it worked out a lot better,” Kauffmann said. “Eric was hot on his forehand so we changed some things to his backhand and it helped a lot. He also served the ball really well at the right times.”
Both players stood their ground in the third set, holding serve all the way through to force a tiebreaker to decide the winner. Quigley would go up 2-0 in the breaker and never look back, mixing in an ace and aggressive playing to win the tiebreaker 7-1 and earn his spot in the finals.
“I served very well again today, which is something I have done all tournament,” Quigley said. “We both played really well in the third set and I kept telling myself to just get it to a tiebreaker and go from there. I was able to do that and I took some chances in the tiebreaker that went my way. It was a great match and I am happy to be in the finals tomorrow.”
The victory in singles action continues the most successful season in school history for Quigley. The native of Pewee Valley, Ky., is now 54-7 on the season, moving his career record to 172-46 – with both win totals being school records. Quigley started the event with a win over No. 41 Andre Dome of Cal Poly before punching his ticket to the Sweet 16 with a straight-sets victory over No. 18 Andreas Mies of Auburn. Quigley advanced to the semifinals with a 6-4, 6-3 win over No. 5 Henrique Cunha of Duke on Saturday. Quigley has only lost one set the entire tournament.
“I think it is every college player’s dream to play their last collegiate match on center court in Athens,” Emery said. “Eric has a chance to do that tomorrow and we look forward to it.”