March 29, 2012
BY MATT MAGILL
On and off the court, the 2012 season has been a busy one for associate head coach Chris Woodruff.
In competition, the Tennessee staff has kept busy developing a young team that starts a trio of freshmen in the top three positions of the lineup, courts usually reserved for upperclassmen. With only one returning starter from the 2011 SEC champion squad, the Vols have found ways to win of late and enter this weekend's matches against Vanderbilt and Kentucky with an 11-9 overall record and a 3-3 mark in conference play.
Woodruff is greeted by even more youth at home these days. He and his wife Jennifer Woodruff, the assistant women's swimming coach, welcomed their son Carter into the world earlier this month.
Now in his 10th season at Tennessee, Woodruff talks Davis Cup memories from his playing career, giving players nicknames and the progression of the young Vols team this season and into the future.
Q: First of all, congratulations on the new baby. How's fatherhood treating you the third time around?
A: It's okay. It's a lot of fun and he's changed a tremendous amount already in the three weeks of his short life so far. It's a lot of sleepless nights, but also a lot of memorable moments.
Q: It's a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of missed road trips. What was it like to miss matches?
A: That was really difficult. These guys, they went through a little bit of a rough patch there. They lost to Florida and at National Indoors. That was really hard for me to not be there at that. It's such a prestigious tournament. They lost a few really close matches there, but it was one of those things that the baby just wasn't ready to come out. There was really nothing I could do other than support my wife.
Q: How has the game of tennis changed since you played?
A: I think just in general the strings nowadays allow you to do so much with the ball. I think that's probably one of the biggest changes in the game. It was very hard to hit a winner from where some of the spots I see some of these shots being struck from let alone clean winners that are four or five yards behind the baseline. There were great athletes in the 90s and there are in the 21st century. But the biggest overall change for me is the strings.
Q: You played against all the greats. What was it like playing against those guys? What are your memories looking back on some of those matches?
A: Well, now that I'm away from it, I look back and I think there were some special times there. Getting to play on Wimbledon Centre Court and US Open Center Court, those are memories I'll always have. I was lucky enough to beat guys who were ranked one in the world. It was a lot of fun. It was a very hard lifestyle. Tennis is a very global sport so you can't just stay in America. Overall there were lots of fond moments.
Q: Rhyne Williams was just named a practice player for the US Davis Cup team. You were involved in one of the best Davis Cup matches ever against Zimbabwe. Would you share that story?
A: I've been down Rhyne's path before. I was a practice partner for several Davis Cup squads, so I think it will really help Rhyne being around that atmosphere, particularly in Europe. I've been in two ties. Both were on foreign soil: one was in Africa and one was in Spain. The one in Africa was a long way away. It took a long time to get there. We played in a tin roof. It was a bamboo hut. There was altitude so the ball shot through the air. Everyone was pulling against us. It's really a difficult situation to be in, particularly with that being my first tie. You don't get great practice. Being a practice partner is good, but it's not like when they call your name out and they say, "Representing the United States," that's a huge deal. It really is.
Q: What advice would you give John-Patrick Smith, Tennys Sandgren and Rhyne as they start out their professional careers?
A: I would tell them to take it slow. Playing professional tennis, it's really easy to get wrapped up in the shortsighted goals in terms of what's best right now. I would encourage them to always look at the schedule, set it the best they can, and have a big picture plan for where they want to go. Playing professional tennis, you have to have some goals. It's pretty cyclical and it works on the calendar year. You need to have goals otherwise it's hard to say what you improved on. If you went from 260 in the world to 205, it doesn't seem like a big jump, but it's a big move. They need to make sure they take it slow and be big picture oriented and set goals.
Q: We're halfway through the SEC season. The team has seen some tough losses, but things have picked up the past few weeks. How important is this weekend in terms of carrying over that momentum?
A: Every SEC match is important. I try not to look at matches as more important than others. We're .500 in the league right now. Guys are working really hard. We lost basically our entire team from last year. I look for good effort and to make sure these guys are ready mentally to show up on gameday. Every match is important in the league.
Q: Speaking of being mentally ready, this team has a few high-energy guys who are really emotional on the court and then there's a few who are very calm. How do you coach to the different emotional styles?
A: I try to coach more from a standpoint of a plan. I try not to coach into the emotion of the player. I don't want to get too emotionally invested in how their attitudes are on the court and how they use momentum to energize themselves. I try to get invested in the plan. Where I feel like I can help is not with my fist-pumping but with my mind and seeing where we can exploit an opponent.
Q: You're well known for your nicknames. My personal favorite is the "Rock and Hammer" for Hunter and Mikelis. Where do you come up with these nicknames for these guys?
A: I don't know. JP was "The Bug" because he was everywhere. He was so wiry and lanky. He could get his racquet on so many balls. Sometimes I just think of them. I have no idea. There's something about certain players that trigger a nickname, I guess.
Q: If you look at this team, most of the team comes back next year. You have freshmen playing as the top half of your lineup right now. How exciting is it to be able to see the development of players long-term?
A: It's really important to not get so caught up in wins and losses this year. Ultimately, it's really important, but we have a young team. We need to lay a foundation for where we're going in the future. This young team is really good, but they can be great. It's really important to focus on doing all the little things right and try to give everything we can each point and give our best effort. That's what will take this team to the next level. It's not going to be sporadic work ethic or some days we show up to play. It's important to hammer down a foundation so the guys coming back all understand were they're going and what it takes to achieve a championship caliber team.