John Clay

John Clay: In 29th year, Kentucky tennis coach still on top of his game

Dennis Emery has the snow on top, but the fire still burns down below.

He is now Kentucky's white-haired wonder, in his 29th year as the school's men's tennis coach.

Here's some history. When Emery first hopped on board, back in 1983, Joe B. Hall was the men's basketball coach. The late Terry Hall was the women's basketball coach. The late Jerry Claiborne was the football coach. Cliff Hagan was the athletics director.

Emery has outlasted them all. And then some. Starting Friday at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center, Kentucky plays host to first- and second-round matches in the men's NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year.

Last year, Kentucky advanced to the second weekend. Now ranked No. 10 in the country, do the Cats have the potential to reach Final Four in tennis?

"Yes," Emery said. "What I'm basing that on is actual results."

He has the institutional knowledge to back it up. You don't keep your job for 29 years in a competitive sport by sitting on your hands. The 56-year-old Emery is all about tennis, always has been. His son Matt is coaching tennis in Port St. Lucie, Fla. His daughter Merritt plays at Alabama.

"She actually called us when the tornado ended, and we had no idea that the tornado was going on," Emery said. "So we kind of said, 'We're at dinner, can you call us back?' At which point she said, 'I just don't think you understand what I've gone through.' She's difficult to shake and she was really shaken."

It was Merritt's dad who shook things up at Kentucky. From 1944 though 1982, no UK men's tennis coach had more than a nine-year run. Emery has tacked two decades on to that mark. His sixth year here, 1988, his team finished the year ranked in the top 10. Kentucky repeated that feat again in 1989, 1992, 1997 and 2002.

"That (first time) was a very exciting time, because we didn't have a great tradition," the coach said Wednesday. "I think this year is more exciting for me, just from the standpoint of I'm in my 29th year, instead of my fifth or sixth, and I don't think I have 29 more in me."

Plus, to be honest, by Emery's lofty standards, the program slumped from 2006-2009, its rankings falling from No. 15 in 2005 to 34, 58, 58 and 40. Last year's team bounced back to reach the second weekend of the NCAAs.

This team has posted a school-record 26 wins. It reached the SEC Tournament finals for the second time in its history. It boasts one of the nation's best players in junior Eric Quigley.

"The thing I'm really proud of with our team, we've consistently been in the top-15 level," Emery said. "We're hoping this year to kind of bust through that level and finish in the top six, or five."

That would be extremely satisfying, especially now.

"The game has just changed so much in my 29 years," Emery said. "One, there's a lot more pressure. Two, everybody's trying. Back 20 years ago, you could go pick up some easy wins. Now, you're playing Cleveland State and these guys have Babylon rackets and they're whacking balls 103 miles an hour and everybody's a threat."

Yet, the man with the white hair has met the challenge. He says his current team is the most athletic he's coached. He says he has been gratified by its progress, that it has been a group of overachievers. He gives a lot of credit to his associate head coach, Cedric Kauffmann.

He also mentions his trio of French players (Tom Jomby, Alex Musialek and Anthony Rossi) and how they have bonded.

So when the interviews finished Wednesday, someone asked Dennis Emery how many languages he now speaks.

"Just one," said Emery.

That, of course, is still tennis.