Jan. 13, 2014
The first week of tennis preseason training is in the books, and associate head coach Chris Woodruff has liked what he's seen from his team so far.
The Vols are set to hit the courts for the season opener Saturday, hosting Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky at Goodfriend Tennis Center beginning at 10 a.m.
This year's Tennessee squad is starting the year ranked sixth nationally, right where the team ended last year. The Vols are returning their top four starters -- Mikelis Libietis, Hunter Reese, Jarryd Chaplin and Brandon Fickey -- while also bringing in four newcomers. Senior Colton Norton is also back for his final year, and Tennessee will at last see the services of sophomore Bartosz Sawicki, who will be eligible to play after joining the team last January.
Before the start of the season, Woodruff took some time out Saturday for a preseason Q&A looking at the months ahead.
Q: It's been almost a week of practice now. What are your thoughts about the team after week one?
A: "I'm pretty impressed. Guys seem to have a pretty good mindset while we're on the tennis court. I think we just have to make sure -- in everything we do -- to strive for excellence. We don't have to be perfect by any means, but we should strive for that. I think we're trying to get everything congruent in the weight room with how we are on the court and apply that into the classroom. Trying to firm up, if you will, and try to make sure everyone's on the same page with excellence and the goals we're striving for."
Q: People look at the roster, and they see that most of the starters are back. Also, half the team is new. How do you get the new players on the same page as the team gets ready for the first dual match?
A: "You see the ranking of six, and that's based on the ranking of last year. At the same time, we have very experienced players. Obviously led by Mikelis-Hunter, Hunter-Mikelis -- whichever order we decide to play them -- we are experienced. Everybody on this team is experienced. They've all played high-level junior tournaments. The good news is one half of the team has played and the other half is battle tested. Not at the collegiate level, but they have played ITF junior tournaments and they have played high-level tournaments in their respective countries. You can never truly figure out what's going to happen until you get in that Friday-Sunday rotation of conference play. That's when, as a coaching staff, we can really dig our hands into things and scratch the surface with the direction we want to go."
Q: Bartosz Sawicki joined the team a year ago, and fans will finally have a chance to see him play this week. What have you seen from him in the year he's been here practicing with the team?
A: "We expecting Bart to step in and be a really solid performer for us. He was one of the guys who has experience. He came in as a really good player. He took visits to several top-ranked schools. The guy can play. Bart needs to learn how to be consistent every day. He's learning the system, learning how we play doubles, learning what the expectations are ... The reasons for success so far is multifactorial. He's been a team player. He participates hard in all the practices. Works hard in the weight room. I think he really wants to be here. For him to truly understand it. He'll have to get in and play. Once he gets in there and plays, it'll hit home that he can contribute. Right now he's contributing though hard work and showing up and trying his best in all the practices. I think he'll figure out other ways he can contribute and maybe lead and help this team by playing."
Q: I was seeing today the veteran players telling the younger players how they warm up before practice. How have the older players been helping the newcomers as the team gets ready to start the year?
A: "We had a practice yesterday that I thought was really good. For the first time in a while, we did -- like you said -- have our older guys step up and show the younger guys and really lead by example. It's done in different ways. Some guys are vocal. Some guys are quiet and just show up and work hard every day. We have remarkable players on this team, and we're really trying to do remarkable things. In order for that to happen, it does require some leadership. Everywhere teams that are successful -- from football down to hockey -- there's always a leader. We're finally starting to exhibit that."
Q: What's it like for you as a coach to get another season underway? Is it exciting or just part of the whole process?
A: "Yes, I'm excited to start the season, but for me, it's always looking for ways to improve, always trying to create practices where the guys stay focused, always looking for things in individual hits where guys can improve even in just little meticulous details. As a coach, yes, it's great. I'm looking forward to competition, but my greater focus is on the whole circumference of the program."
Q: I saw it was Hunter's birthday today. The first time he celebrated his birthday with the Vols was on the preseason team training in Hawaii in 2011. What did you take away from that trip?
A: "I remember that our performance wasn't as enhanced as it needed to be. We showed up a little bit out of shape, but it was a great bonding time. I think those training trips can have a lot of great purposes, one of which is to bond, to get everyone on the same page and really know each other. Hopefully we'll get to do that again. Obviously with Hunter turning 21, there comes a sense of responsibility. The older you get, the wiser you are. I'm hoping one of those responsibilities is that he can lead this team."
Q: Just to kind of close it out here, the Australian Open gets going this week. Rhyne Williams just qualified for it. What are your memories of that Grand Slam?
A: "It's really hard. Some years I went to Australia and I hadn't played well leading up to it, and I made the quarterfinals. Other years, I was playing well leading up to it, and I played terrible. It is a very tough tournament. The surface has changed since I played. It was Rebound Ace, which was the rubber. Playing on the rubber was extremely difficult on your body. I have this vivid memory of guys losing toenails and toes were blue from sticking to the surface because it's summer there. It's a great tournament. I think it might be one of the hardest to win just because of the weather. In Melbourne, seasons change in the blink of an eye. It's notorious for wind and rain. It could be cold. It could be hot. Your offseason work with definitely show up in Australia.
"I'm really happy for Christopher Williams, who was our volunteer coach here, and Rhyne that they have an opportunity to play in the main draw. They've worked extremely hard. I know Christopher's been the consummate professional with him, trying to work on his mental game. I think Rhyne is buying into that."