March 11, 2011
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Not long after second-ranked Tennessee clinched a 4-2 comeback victory over 11th-ranked Kentucky on Friday, Sam Winterbotham was already sure he had seen one of the best team performances in his five-year tenure as the Vols' head coach.
Wintherbotham said it was a "defining performance" for the Vols as a squad, and individually, the same could be said for senior John-Patrick Smith.
Smith fought off six match points the second set and and rallied in the third to defeat fifth-ranked Eric Quigley on court 1 to clinch the Vols' first road Southeastern Conference victory inside the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex.
"This sort of match reminds you how great SEC is," Wintherbotham said. "It's an unbelievable conference. The teams are just so competitive. It was an incredible tennis match. It was high quality from both teams, but our guys just came together and willed that victory."
The Vols (13-1, 3-0 SEC) played singles from behind after losing the doubles point for just the second time this season, but Tennessee came back to take a quick 3-1 lead behind straight-set wins from sophomore Tennys Sandgren on court 3, senior Matteo Fago on court 4 and sophomore Rhyne Williams on court 2.
After that, the remaining three matches were close and all eyes were focused on court 1 for the anticipated rematch between Smith and Quigley. They had already faced each other twice this season, with Quigley winning both meetings, but Smith had won last year's meeting in dual-match play.
Quigley took the first set in a tiebreaker 7-6 (1). Smith, ranked 13th nationally, jumped out to a 4-0 lead to start the second set, but Kentucky's ace tied up the match and eventually forced a second-set tiebreaker.
The tiebreaker was not short on dramatics. Smith and Quigley played 32 points and Smith faced six match points before winning the tiebreaker 17-15 to send the match to a third set.
"I lost score during the tiebreaker," Smith said. "I just didn't even know what the score was, but I knew when I'd win a point."
Not long after the tiebreaker, Kentucky (13-4, 2-1) closed the Vols' lead to 3-2 after sophomore Edward Jones had his five-match winning streak snapped by Tom Jomby. Senior Boris Conkic was behind a set and a break on court 5 against Anthony Rossi, putting even more at stake for Smith at the top of the lineup.
In the third set, Smith fell behind a break early but evened the score and broke Quigley at 4-4. With a series of strong serves, he closed out the victory 6-7 (1), 7-6 (15), 6-4 to clinch the win for the Vols, and teammates immediately rushed forward celebrate with Smith on the very same court where Conkic secured the SEC Tournament title against Florida a year ago.
"It was a tough match and a team effort," Smith said. "It's hard to win in this environment with four courts. We were able to keep our focus. We had good cheering all day from our teammates."
Smith's victory was his team-leading 30th of the season and the 140th of his career, tying Shelby Cannon for third on the Vols' all-time wins list. While the accomplishments of the three-time All-America are many, Winterbotham said Smith's win Friday was one of his most impressive.
"That guy's been winning big matches for four years," Winterbotham said. "The quality of that match was phenomenal. For him to come through and win 17-15 in the tiebreaker and then finish the way he did was outstanding."
"I think he's taken steps forward as a player and a competitor today."
The Vols started the day slowly in doubles with an 8-6 loss by Williams and Sandgren on court 2 followed by and an 8-4 loss by Fago and Jones on court 3. After the point was clinched, Conkic and Smith won their 12th-consecutive match on court 1.
Tennessee quickly righted the ship at the start of singles. Sandgren was first off the courts with a 6-3, 6-4 win against Brad Cox, and Fago finished a few minutes by beating Alberto Gonzalez 6-4, 6-4. Williams put the Vols up 3-1 with a long 6-4, 7-5 win against Alex Musialek.
"Everybody was disappointed in our doubles," Winterbotham said. "The team was frustrated, but Tennys handled that frustration very well, as did Rhyne. We lost the doubles point and those first four matches won. Those guys stepped in and would not be denied.
"The way they competed, they way they cheered for each other, it was great. The players who didn't play -- Taylor (Patrick) and Jarryd (Chaplin) -- they're exhausted after putting the effort in supporting the team."
The Vols hit the road again to play Vanderbilt in an SEC match Sunday at noon Central. A live blog will be available at UTSports.com.
"It was a good confidence boost for the team, but we need to win another one in Nashville," Smith said.
1. #13 John-Patrick Smith (UT) def. #5 Eric Quigley (UK) 6-7 (1), 7-6 (15), 6-4
2. #3 Rhyne Williams (UT) def. #57 Alex Musialek (UK) 6-4, 7-5
3. #35 Tennys Sandgren (UT) def. Brad Cox (UK) 6-3, 6-4
4. #41 Matthew Fago (UT) def. #86 Alberto Gonzalez (UK) 6-4, 6-4
5. Anthony Rossi (UK) vs. #113 Boris Conkic (UT) 6-3, 4-3 DNF
6. Tom Jomby (UK) def. Edward Jones (UT) 6-1, 7-5
1. #1 John-Patrick Smith/Boris Conkic (UT) def. Eric Quilgey/Brad Cox (UK) 9-8 (3)
2. Alberto Gonzalez/Tom Jomby (UK) def. #55 Rhyne Williams/Tennys Sandgren (UT) 8-6
3. Anthony Rossi/Alex Musialek (UK) def. #52 Ed Jones/Matteo Fago (UT) 8-4
Order of Finish: Doubles (2,3,1); Singles (3,4,2,6,1)