March 16, 2010
By Josh Pate
Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series highlighting the Tennessee men's tennis team's doubles program.
One look at the ITA doubles rankings will tell you Tennessee's tennis team has a doubles program that is on solid foundation.
Two of the top five teams in the nation wear orange. The doubles tandem of John-Patrick Smith and Davey Sandgren rose to No. 1 in the rankings Tuesday, while Boris Conkic and Rhyne Williams are No. 5. And to top it off, No. 7 on the list is a combination of the two teams: Smith and Conkic.
Of course, what do rankings mean? It's all about production, and the Vols have that, too.
In 16 matches this season, UT has won every doubles point. The Vols kept that streak alive on Sunday against Kentucky with the home crowd behind them. Splitting the 2 and 3 matches, the point came down to the top billing and Smith and Sandgren pulled it out 9-8 (7-2) in Knoxville. It gave the senior Sandgren his 102nd doubles victory of his UT career, as he's just the third player in school history to top 100 career wins in doubles play. Smith and Sandgren are 25-4 this season.
"First of all, it's because of a good chemistry on our team," Conkic said of why the Vols have been so productive to open matches with a strong doubles performance. "We are really a close team and we know what each guy likes. That helps us in doubles."
So does the time spent on that unique aspect of the game. UT head coach Sam Winterbotham had his guys working all fall on their doubles game. They practiced different combinations. They practiced taking on different roles. They practiced and practiced and practiced some more.
It all worked. The players learned to pick up on each others' qualities quickly and adjust on the court. The prime example came in the fall when Winterbotham paired Conkic and Smith together for the first time at the ITA All-American Championships, the biggest tournament of the fall. They had practiced together just once. Despite the inexperience on the same court, the duo beat four top-20 teams and won the tournament doubles championship.
"I think we played really well because we knew what to do on the court," Conkic said. "True, we never played together. But we stuck to the basics, what we were told to do in practice. We managed to put the practice situations into the matches, so that helped our success."
Working with different doubles partners isn't new for Smith. The junior has paired with three different teammates in his short UT career: Kaden Hensel, Sandgren and Conkic. And all have found success with the common denominator being Smith. He has 94 career doubles victories as a junior at UT.
Again, it goes back to practicing with different partners and working on that chemistry. Winterbotham has drilled home the emphasis on Tennessee having a successful doubles program only because it was passed on to him. When Winterbotham was hired as UT's head coach, associate head coach and former UT player Chris Woodruff hammered the importance of doubles, particularly in the SEC.
"I remember Chris stopping me in my tracks and saying, `Coach, you need to spend more time on doubles,'" Winterbotham said. "So I was learning how important it was. I've always known the doubles point in college tennis was extremely important, but I wasn't quite ready to see how competitive the SEC was. I knew the coaches were really competitive, but I didn't know the environment until I went into it and witnessed it myself."
That quick lesson has transformed into a philosophy that Winterbotham is preaching himself.
"Me coming in here - I'm midway through my fourth season - you really do see there's a pride in doubles," Winterbotham said. "It's necessitated by the format and playing in our conference. You look around our conference and it's stacked with great doubles teams. Every week in the SEC matches are being won 4-3. It's so competitive that going on the road and trying to win doubles or singles matches makes you understand the importance of the doubles point."
The emphasis is OK with the players, particularly those who played last year in the SEC tournament finals and lost 4-2 to Mississippi, which included losing the doubles point. Same can be said for Smith and Sandgren, who lost in the NCAA doubles finals last year.
"Our coaches put a lot of emphasis on that because last year we lost a couple of very important doubles points that may have cost us things like an SEC championship," Conkic said. "We practiced a lot of doubles. Also, we tried out a lot of different combinations. Playing with different partners, we had to work on different things so I think that made us better as well. For example, with one guy, you have to have a better serve. With another guy, you have to return better. So I think mixing up different doubles teams made us improve."
The Conkic-Smith tandem sounded solid in the fall, and is. But Winterbotham has gone back to a Smith-Sandgren combination in the top doubles spot and it's worked wonders. Conkic has moved into the No. 2 position while pairing with freshman Rhyne Williams, and the two have provided the right backup to secure the doubles point each time out. They've won 13 consecutive matches this spring. Matteo Fago and Edwards Jones have solidified the No. 3 doubles team for the Vols.
Meanwhile, Smith and Sandgren are hoping to continue their winning ways that began last season. In 2009, they lost in the NCAA finals and hope to avenge that slip-up this year. They've worked harder, and they've tightened their communication.
"Me and Davey complement each other so well just because of the way we've matured together over the last year," Smith said. "We've played a lot of doubles. This year, we've learned from our mistakes. We lost in the NCAA finals last year. This year we've roomed together, matured a lot and it's paid off and showing in the records as well."
Practice, however, is exactly what Smith pointed to that has helped the team develop such a rapport with one another, and therefore posted the stellar results UT has seen this season.
"I think the biggest adjustment in doubles is your partner," Smith said. "You have to rely on your partner to make serves and make returns. It's a lot about having belief in your partner and team chemistry."