Canadian Liam Draxl embracing pressure of NCAA's No. 1 ranking

Canadian Liam Draxl. (Hannah Phillips/UK Athletics)

Liam Draxl whips a forehand on the run, drawn to the far corner of the court. It’s the beginning of February, and the University of Kentucky men’s tennis team is taking on USC. Draxl, a member of the Wildcats, is squaring off against Daniel Cukierman, the top-ranked NCAA men’s tennis player at the time.

With the match against Cukierman tied at a set apiece, Draxl had dropped the first three games of the third set. Back against the wall, though, the Newmarket, Ont., teenager rattled off five straight games. Now it’s match point, and Draxl glides to get back into position, expecting his opponent to force him to hit a difficult backhand shot.

But Cukierman’s ball sails long. Game, set, match — Draxl.

The youngster throws his hat onto the court, pumps both fists and lets out a bellowing howl. He’s greeted with celebratory cheers and embraces from his coach, Cedric Kauffmann, and teammates.

"I fought hard," Draxl said. "I remember when that ball fell long for the win, it felt amazing."

Draxl’s 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win was the signature match of his sophomore season at Kentucky and helped propel the 19-year-old up the NCAA rankings. By season’s end, Draxl had usurped Cukierman to become the No. 1-ranked men’s player in the country, and will be the top seed in the NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships when the competition gets underway on May 23.

That lofty position is a result of a process that started back when Draxl was just four years old. His dad, Brian, is a former No. 1-ranked Ontario player in the over 35, 40 and 45 divisions, and head club pro at Newmarket Tennis Club, which has long produced top junior talent under his leadership.

Naturally, Brian wasted no time introducing his son to the sport. But, according to Draxl, he avoided the pitfall of pushing too hard early on.

"As a dad, you can’t want it too much for your kid. You’ve got to let them dictate how much they want to play, how hard they want to train, and that’s what my dad did," said Draxl. "It was a nice balance between coach and dad."

As a teenager, Draxl spent his summer days in the Newmarket Tennis Club’s seasonal camp and his evenings putting in extra work, training and playing matches with friends until sunset. While team sports are often most popular among kids at that age, it was the individual nature of tennis that ultimately drew Draxl to the game.

"It’s just you out there," he said. "You’re responsible for everything. There are no quarters or halves. It’s a match. There are so many components you have to do really well. I like the challenge of it."

Draxl’s long summer days at the club translated to success on the court as a junior. In 2015, he ascended up the junior ranks, winning the singles and doubles provincial championships as a 14-year-old. A member of Team Ontario, Draxl competed in ITF tournaments and junior Grand Slams.

While several Canadian tennis players, such as Bianca Andreescu and Felix Auger-Aliassime, trained at the National Tennis Centre in Montreal as juniors, Draxl decided to take a different path. Looking to gain more exposure in the U.S., he began training at the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, Fla. That choice opened him up to the possibility of playing college tennis, where he could receive an education while competing against high-quality players.

"Tennis Canada has helped me a lot, giving me many opportunities and wild cards for events," Draxl said. "(But) I always had a place in Saddlebrook, so there was no need to change and move to the National Training Centre. Saddlebrook’s always had good players and coaches, so I was happy."

Draxl’s accomplished junior career caught the attention of several Div. I programs. And while Kentucky wasn’t initially his first choice, Draxl appreciated Kauffman’s honesty about how he could take the next step in his development.

"He was complimentary of my game, but told me to stand closer to the baseline, to improve my serve — everything to become a professional tennis player, because that’s my ultimate goal here," said Draxl of his first meeting with Kauffmann.

In Draxl’s time at Kentucky, Kauffmann has witnessed the Canadian show a willingness to make the changes and improvements necessary to reach that ultimate goal.

"Week by week, he started to develop those weapons in his game," Kauffmann said. "He’s never afraid of working on something that is uncomfortable. He’s No. 1 in the NCAA, but he can be better, and he knows it."

After the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA tennis championships, Draxl showed off his potential in the ensuing summer months. Competing in pro matches, he defeated eventual 2021 Australian Open semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev 6-4, 4-6, [10-7]. Draxl also earned one of the wild cards to the Delray Beach Open thanks to seven consecutive wins in the pre-qualifying event.

That experience set the tone for Draxl’s successful sophomore season, which he finished with an impressive 19-2 record that included three victories against the country’s top-ranked players, including USC’s Cukierman. That success has made the young Canadian the talk of college tennis south of the border ahead of the NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championships, and Draxl’s up for the challenge.

"There’s this famous quote, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’" Draxl said. "I know I’ll have a target on my back as the No. 1 player. You just have to embrace and enjoy it."

The journey doesn’t end here for the Canadian teen — the No. 1 ranking in NCAA isn’t Draxl’s ultimate goal. He has his sights set on turning pro once his college career has come to a close.

"I’m never satisfied," Draxl said. "I want to be one of the best players in the world, playing week in, week out on the ATP Tour. I’m just going to keep my head down, keep working hard and see where it takes me."

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