The NCAA Championships have provided the unexpected nearly every year for KC Corkery. His first two years as a collegian, the Cardinal finished his season ranked #42 and #40 in the nation. Playing beyond expectations and his computer rankings, Corkery as both a freshman and sophomore advanced to the Round of 16 in the NCAA singles tournament. Then in the 2005 NCAAs, the 6'2" righty was seeded #9-16 and finished the year as the #15 player in the national rankings. Corkery disappointingly had his worst performance when he was bounced in a first-round upset of that year's NCAAs.
This week, Corkery is surprising us all once again. After an opening round match that saw him go three sets and battle an obvious back problem, the unseeded Stanford senior has now advanced impressively through his two subsequent matches. Both times Corkery has upset seeded players, with Friday's three-set victory looking relatively easy over #7 seed Arnau Brugues at 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. The Manhattan Beach (Calif.) native is now on to the quarterfinals, the furthest he has ever advanced in the NCAA singles tournament.
"I kind of had higher aspirations after my freshman year," he says of the 2003 Sweet 16 berth. "This is the first time I have made it past that round."
One key for Corkery these past couple days has been relatively good health with his ailing back, which suffers from a bulging disc. Such an injury is a day-to-day mystery for an athlete, but preventative care, treatment and caution have served Corkery well since his first-round setback.
"It's been feeling a lot better. I've been taking a lot more care of it," he comments. "I was scared that first round when I went down, but it's felt pretty good since. I have changed my service motion a little bit. I have tried to do a few things that might not aggravate it as much, and it hasn't really hurt me yet. I'm just trying to stay healthy and keep going."
Slotted #25 in the latest ITA computer rankings, Corkery scored upsets in his second and third round matches against the #15 and #7 players in the country, but big competition is nothing new for the Stanford man. In just this month, he has played also against the #4 (Lars Poerschke, Baylor), #5 (Ludovic Walter, Duke) and #6 (Conor Niland, Cal) players in the nation, scoring a win over one and leading the other two by a set before the dual match ended. Corkery has played Walter and Niland twice this year, as well as #1-ranked Benjamin Kohlloeffel of UCLA. This is a player who has been plenty tested by the top talents in the college game.
"I'm just out here playing. It was remarkable today that I didn't really feel any nerves until maybe just right at the end. I just feel like I can play with these guys," Corkery explains. "That is kind of where I feel I belong. All the players out here are really good, and on any given day anyone can beat anyone."
That has indeed been proven in this Men's NCAA Tennis singles draw. The quarterfinals today at Stanford have just three of the top eight seeds still alive. Four of the quarterfinalists are unranked. Corkery today plays against an unseeded foe in #30-ranked Clement Reix. The French-born Clemson junior yesterday scored a big upset of his own, knocking off #3 Luigi D'Agord of Miami.
The conditions for today's match could favor either player. The Taube Family Tennis Stadium is Corkery's home court, which certainly amounts to some advantage. Corkery does admit, however, that he maybe let himself get too wrapped up in the partisan environment and emotion when he blew a 4-1 lead in the first set that he lost 4-6.
"This is awesome that I am able to finish out my playing career here at Stanford, where I have a lot of great memories. And I like the courts. They're nice. The crowd has been great," the senior says. "I have tried to stay within myself. I felt like I kind of got a big head when I went up 4-1 in the first. I stopped really focusing, but the crowd is great. Anytime I have a big point, I feel like I have the crowd right behind me. I never felt tired at all out there. I don't know if that was the crowd's energy, but it was awesome."
Friday however was a very un-Taube like environment for tennis with forceful winds wreaking havoc on the courts that were wildly uncharacteristic of the area. The wind may have played a role in at least one of the Stanford women's upset losses yesterday, and Corkery felt like he faced a disadvantage against Tulsa's Arnau Brugues under the conditions.
"The wind was a little crazy today. We don't normally have that much wind," Corkery explains. "The last time I played at Tulsa, which is where this guy is from, the wind was incredible. The wind was really severe there at times. He probably was used to it, playing in Tulsa. I just tried to play my game and not think about it too much. A couple times it hurt me when I tried to throw up a lob; I didn't quite play it right. For the most part, I'm trying to hit through the wind. Just try to play big and get to the net."
A bad back. Blustery winds. Higher ranked players across the net. These are all conditions that should conspire against Corkery, but he is playing some of his very best tennis right now. With the exception of his lapse after leading in the first set, the Stanford man has played smart tennis and served efficiently. His strokes are with him, and he is on his game.
"Mentally, I feel like I'm focused. I'm in the matches," Corkery states. "I just feel like I am moving pretty well from the baseline. Today especially I missed a lot of opportunities to step up when I had a short ball, but for the most part, I was doing it pretty well. Recognizing when the ball is short and playing the patterns that I want to play, as opposed to letting the other player dictate what is going on."
NCAA Men's Singles Quarterfinals:
Today, 2:00 pm
Taube Family Tennis Stadium
KC Corkery vs. Clement Reix
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