The Vols added some weight to that belief Saturday night when Smith and fellow seniors Boris Conkic and Matteo Fago all won in straight sets to clinch a 5-2 victory over 16th-ranked Illinois at the Atkins Tennis Center for Tennessee's first road victory of the season.
The seniors, who previously won at the Illinois facility two seasons ago, led the way as the Vols won four of six first sets after clinching the doubles point.
"It was a tough environment, but I just stuck to the game plan and executed well," Smith said. "I just made sure I concentrated on my court because in here, it's really echoey, and that can really distract from your focus. Matteo and I did the same thing and kept each other focused."
Conkic and Smith both took commanding leads once singles got underway. Conkic rolled past Bruno Abdelnour 6-3, 6-1 on court 5, and Smith earned a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Abe Souza on court 2 a few minutes later to give the Vols a 3-0 lead.
Fago got a timely break late in the first set to even the score and eventually won in a tiebreaker. He provided the clinching point for Tennessee at 4-0, beating Roy Kalmanovich 7-6 (5), 6-4 on court 4.
Tennessee's senior class has been a successful one in the players' first three seasons at UT. The Vols have won 77 dual matches during that time, the most wins in a three-year period in program history.
"I have so much faith in Boris and Matteo, it's just uncanny almost," Smith said. "When it comes to these situations, when you look at our lineup and any guy can hold his own. It's very reassuring to know you don't have all the pressure on yourself."
Once the match was decided, the final matches on court were all three-set affairs and Illinois (2-2) picked up their two points.
Sophomore Rhyne Williams, the nation's top-ranked player, had his 11-match winning streak snapped with a 7-6, 3-6, 6-0 loss to 11th-ranked Dennis Nevolo. Sophomore Tennys Sandgren rallied to win on court 3 against No. 111 Johnny Hamui, and sophomore Edward Jones lost on court 6 to Stephen Hoh.
In doubles, the Vols won the point for the 17th consecutive match dating back to midway through last season. Sandgren and Williams defeated Stephen Hoh and Connor Roth 8-4 on court 2. Smith and Conkic clinched the doubles point for the third time this season with an 8-5 win against Nevolo and Johnny Hamui on court 1.
Tennessee hits the road again to play Duke on Feb. 12.
"We've got another tough road match next week at Duke," Smith said. "They're a great team. Hopefully we can build on this match, knowing we can play well on the road."
Notes: The victory was Sam Winterbotham's 98th at head coach of the Vols. He is on pace to become the fastest UT coach to reach the century mark ... John-Patrick Smith, who has played all but three of his career doubles matches at the No. 1 position, is just seven victories away from tying Bryon Talbot's career UT record of 131 wins ... Boris Conkic is also climbing the career charts. He has 96 singles wins and 95 doubles wins, putting him on pace to becoming the fourth Vol to have 100 victories in both categories ... Matteo Fago collected his 90th career singles win as a Vol ... Tennessee has won eight consecutive road matches.
Tennessee 5, Illinois 2
1. #11 Dennis Nevolo (ILL) def. #1 Rhyne Williams (TENN) 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-0
2. #21 John-Patrick Smith (TENN) def. #121 Abe Souza (ILL) 6-2, 6-2
3. Tennys Sandgren (TENN) def. #111 Johnny Hamui (ILL) 1-6, 6-2, 6-3
4. #38 Matteo Fago (TENN) def. Roy Kalmanovich (ILL) 7-6 (5), 6-4
5. Boris Conkic (TENN) def. Bruno Abdelnour (ILL) 6-3, 6-1
6. Stephen Hoh (ILL) def. Edward Jones (TENN) 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (7)
1. John-Patrick Smith/Boris Conkic (TENN) def. Dennis Nevolo/Johnny Hamui (ILL) 8-5
2. Rhyne Williams/Tennys Sandgren (TENN) def. Stephen Hoh/Connor Roth (ILL) 8-4
3. Abe Souza/Roy Kalmanovich (ILL) vs. Edward Jones/Matteo Fago (TENN) 5-5, DNF
Order of finish: Doubles (2,1); Singles (5,2,4,1,3,6)