Patrick Kaukovalta looks to rebound from injury-plagued freshman year

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Patrick Kaukovalta looks to rebound from injury-plagued freshman year

Photo Courtesy of UA Athletics

Photo Courtesy of UA Athletics

Photo Courtesy of UA Athletics

Photo Courtesy of UA Athletics

Jack Kennedy, Sports Writer

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When 16-year-old Patrick Kaukovalta agreed to be a line umpire for an exhibition match in his home country of Finland, he had no intention of picking up a racquet and playing, but he ended up creating the memory of a lifetime.

The exhibition match that he was umpiring featured Finnish tennis great Jarkko Nieminen playing a match against Roger Federer, who happens to be Kaukovalta’s idol.

“Roger [Federer] leads by example and is always calm” the sophomore said. “He’s a guy everyone should look up to.”

During the match, Nieminen walked up to Kaukovalta, gave him his racquet and offered to play a point against Federer. With over 13,000 fans in attendance, Kaukovalta nervously accepted.

“I was really nervous and do not remember much,” he said. “But I’m really happy that I got a few shots with him.”

At this point in his young tennis career, Kaukovalta was training nearly full time and traveling around Europe competing in and winning tournaments. These victories led to him being named to the 2016 Finnish Davis Cup team and over 40 different colleges in the US contacting him.

“As a junior, he showed potential through results and physically, he has a tennis player’s body,” coach George Husack said.

With a height of 6-foot-5 and a long reach, Kaukovalta has all the physical attributes that a tennis coach dreams of, which was why the top tennis programs in the country, such as No. 1 Wake Forest, were recruiting him as well. When Husack first came into contact with Kaukovalta via Facebook in 2016, he was impressed not only by his performances, but also by his concern for his personal needs.

“We had great conversations during the recruiting process,” Husack said. “Before meeting him in person, he asked very good questions about how we would train and develop him.”

Kaukovalta eventually traveled across the pond to the U.S. for the first time to visit three schools, including the University of Alabama. On his visit, he was impressed by the development process that Husack emphasized and he later committed to the Crimson Tide.

“We have to develop our players, and it’s been a great opportunity for him to come here and develop his game,” Husack said.

The second time Kaukovalta came to the U.S. was to move into his dorm and begin his college career. Even though there was a cultural shock, he has enjoyed the experience.

“I haven’t really seen much of America except for some schools, but I really enjoy it,” Kaukovalta said. “It’s totally different than in Europe and what I am used to.”

Similarly to how he had to quickly adjust to living in a new country, he had to quickly adapt to the college tennis lifestyle, with the season starting just two weeks after he arrived. To make matters worse, the start of his collegiate career was marred by a back injury that plagued him for his freshman season.

“It was an unfair start for him,” Husack said. “He didn’t start right away because he had to strengthen his back. When he did come in, he fought more injuries that aggravated his back. Last season was not a true reflection of his ability, but it did teach him that if you are not healthy and not strong, then it’s tough to be confident.”

As the season ended, Kaukovalta knew he needed to work on physical aspects such as conditioning to be successful. His hard work in the summer paid off, as he won the Milwaukee Tennis Classic and compiled a 12-4 record for the fall season.

“Having a fall season under his belt, you can see him walking tall and strong,” Husack said. “He needed to develop a strong offensive game that focuses on his serve and ability to attack.”

His success in the fall led to him make his first career appearance in the ITA rankings at No. 41, which does not hold meaning for Husack.

“When you start the season, you want to improve that number,” Husack said. “But then you start thinking about the number and not the game. I said that the ranking doesn’t matter and you are way better than last year.”

Even though he has started slowly in singles play to begin the season, the message Husack has given to Kaukovalta and the team since the season began is to play their best tennis at the end of the season, which is what happened last year when the Crimson Tide made the Round of 16 in the NCAA championships.  

“Our expectations are really high for the rest of the season,” Kaukovalta said. “We had a really solid start to the season. And the way we finished last year, our goal should be to make it to the top 16, and why not even farther?”