Liam Draxl’s father has a saying.
“What is it? Oh, yeah,” said Kentucky’s sophomore tennis star. “It’s easier to tame a lion than it is to put stripes on a pussycat.”
Draxl is a lion. Definitely a lion. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound sophomore from Newmarket, Ontario, is the No. 1-ranked college tennis player in the nation heading into the NCAA Men’s NCAA Individual Tournament, which begins May 23 in Orlando. in Orlando.
Facing Cleveland State’s Nico Mostardi on Friday at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex, Draxl started slowly, falling behind 3-1 in the first set. But the UK star broke Mostardi’s serve to earn a 3-3 tie, then broke Mostardi again to take the first set 7-5.
Upset over what he believed to be incorrect line calls, Mostardi took an elongated break between sets. When he finally returned, the Viking broke Draxl’s serve in the second set’s first game. It was all Draxl domination from then on, however. At one point, the sophomore won 13 straight points on the way to a 6-1 win as UK beat Cleveland State 4-1.
“When you’re the top player in the country, the pressure is not really on (the opponent),” Draxl said afterward. “They’re going to give you their best shot. They’re going to swing freely, swing for the fences against me. He kind of caught me off guard with a couple of odd shots early on. But then I settled down.”
On Saturday, Draxl came from a set down to defeat Gustaf Strom of Arizona 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. But the Wildcats lost to the Pac-12 team 4-2 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was UK’s first home loss of the season.
So how did the 19-year-old Canadian end up playing for the Kentucky tennis team? Brian Draxl, his father, is the head tennis pro at the Newmarket Community Tennis Club. Naturally, he put a racket in his young son’s hand at age 5.
By his teens, Draxl was Canada’s top-ranked junior player, climbing to as high as a No. 9 world ranking. Even before arriving at UK, Draxl had competed in the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open juniors. He finished as runner-up in doubles with Govind Nanda of the U.S. at Junior Wimbledon.
Attending the Saddlebrook International Sports Academy in West Chapel, Fla., Draxl worked with UK assistant coach Matt Gordon. When it came time for college, Draxl followed Gordon to Lexington.
“It’s very professional here,” Draxl said. “A lot of players want to play at the collegiate level but I think around here at UK a lot of the players want go go past college and play at the pro level, which I want to do.”
As a freshman, Draxl admits it took time to adjust to the pressure and environment of college tennis. Unlike the more proper tournament play, college tennis can be loud, raucous and intimidating. But then Draxl is energetic and boisterous himself, playing to the crowd, pumping himself up between points.
“I’ve been that way my whole life,” he said. “Sometimes I go a little too crazy.”
Draxl’s game began going crazy last summer with a series of impressive wins, including a victory over Australian Open semifinalist Aslan Karatsev. “I believed in my game and I knew this was possible,” Draxl said Friday. “But it’s another thing to go out and do it.”
Draxl’s most satisfying win this college season
On paper, Draxl’s best win this season was probably his victory over then No. 1-ranked USC senior Daniel Cukierman 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 on Feb. 10 in Champaign, Ill. His most satisfying win, however, came March 25 against Georgia, when he rallied to beat Trent Bryde 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in Athens.
“The crowd at Georgia is nasty,” Draxl said. “You’ve got (fans) at the back of the court heckling you from the first point. They’re saying all this personal stuff from the first point to the last point. I was down 3-1 in the third set, playing a good player, think he’s No. 20 in college, and I battled back and ended up winning 6-4 in the third set.”
Draxl is one of five Canadians on Cedric Kauffmann’s roster, joining Gabriel Diallo, Alexandre LeBlanc, Joshua Lapadat and Jonathan Sorbo. Diallo, Draxl and LeBlanc had been coached as juniors by former UK All-American Bruno Agostinelli, who died in a motorcycle accident at age 28 in Toronto. Kauffmann was an assistant under Dennis Emery when Agostinelli played at Kentucky.
“I think Bruno kind of lined up some stars for us even though he’s not here,” Kauffmann told the Tennis Recruiting Network. “I think Bruno was part of this in some way.”
And it’s far from over. In a couple of weeks, Draxl will enter the NCAA Men’s Tennis Individual Tournament as the No. 1 seed. What does that feel like?
“It doesn’t feel that much different. I’m still Liam Draxl,” he said. “It’s great that I’m ranked No. 1 in college, but my real aspirations and goals are on the pro circuit after college. This is a steppingstone in my career. I’m not satisfied, that’s for sure. I’m going to keep improving my game and seeing how far my tennis can take me.”