March 31, 2010
BY JOSH PATE
Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part series highlighting the Tennessee men's tennis team's doubles program.
Tennessee associate head tennis coach Chris Woodruff remembers the awkward conversation from 2007 vividly.
The Vols had just traveled to the LSU for SEC Indoors and “got killed in doubles,” as Woodruff puts it. It was head coach Sam Winterbotham’s first year running the Tennessee tennis program after arriving from Colorado, where he was head coach. At Colorado, losing the doubles point was easier to overcome than at Tennessee, where Southeastern Conference play is considered the summit of college tennis.
So Woodruff felt compelled to share his experience and knowledge with Winterbotham. And Winterbotham was all ears.
“We were getting to know each other, but in a roundabout way,” Woodruff said. “I told him the amount of emphasis he put on doubles before he came here isn’t going to be near enough. So now he does a great job. What I’m appreciative of is that he was willing to learn how important doubles was.”
Winterbotham admitted if it weren’t for Woodruff’s guidance, the doubles program at Tennessee would not have continued its progression like it has. Because it has been just that: a continuation.
Mastering the doubles play at Tennessee has become an art. The Vols have built a tradition of great doubles players, which was enhanced in 1980 when Rodney Harmon and Mel Purcell won the NCAA doubles championship.
“I just remember coming to school here and doubles was always ingrained in me,” said Woodruff, who played at Tennessee in 1992 and ’93, when he won the NCAA singles championship. “Even as a volunteer coach, it was something that was really important. I’ve always appreciated the game of doubles.”
But why is doubles play such an emphasis at Tennessee, and even more so in the SEC? Look down the lineup of the conference schools and it’s a fairly simple question to answer.
“It’s hard to win four singles matches against these teams,” Winterbotham said. “You get that doubles point and your odds of winning half are much greater than winning two-thirds. It’s simple math. Going into the singles portion of the match, you either have one point for your team or you don’t. So your backs are either against the wall or you’re in the driver’s seat knowing you only have to get three today to win. It sets the tone.”
In doubles play, three matches are played. The team that wins two of the three secures the doubles point.
To prove the advantage of winning doubles: Tennessee has secured the point in all 19 of its matches this season.
It’s all about complementing the partner on the court. For example, many partnerships will consist of one heavy on power and one heavy on finesse. Practice has a lot to do with determining that, too. But one consensus was that the team doesn’t necessarily have to be chummy to be good; they just have to know their own strengths and weaknesses.
“You have to complement each other on the court,” said Boris Conkic, who pairs with Rhyne Williams to make up Tennessee’s No. 2 doubles team. “For example, Rhyne has a big serve and I like to play in the net so I take advantage of his serve. We both have good returns so it helps us break our opponent’s serve. Rhyne is a taller guy so it helps me if I don’t hit a great serve. He helps me cover the court.”
That’s exactly what the UT coaches preach.
“If you look throughout history, some of the greatest teams and the teams that have the most success, they have to complement one another well,” Woodruff said. “They don’t necessarily have to get along great. They don’t have to hang out together or go to the movies after they’re done with practice. But they have to complement each other well. I think that’s what we’ve done.
“If you look at Davey Sandgren and J.P. Smith, you’ve got one guy who plays with more power and one guy who has a little more finesse. You look at Rhyne and Boris, both of them return really well. Rhyne adds an extra dimension on his serve. Rhyne is a big guy and takes up a lot of space and can help Boris on his serve. It was the same with McEnroe and Fleming. John was 5-foot-10, Peter was close to 6-5. One guy had finesse, the other guy played with more power. You have to put together a team that matches up well and knows their limitations.”
Working together on the court is obviously the big difference between singles play and doubles. The court is bigger for two players to share the position. Some players struggle with the adjustment since doubles play starts college matches. Others, however, make transition easily, like Conkic.
Conkic said he’s a singles-oriented player so expanding to a doubles approach is not as difficult for him. And neither is recognizing his role with his partner.
Since Conkic has been at Tennessee, he’s had to adjust constantly to different partners on the court. It’s partly by design as the UT coaches work to prepare their players to be ready for change at any moment. It’s also been a huge help for Conkic.
“I was thinking about it and since I got to UT I have played with eight different partners and with each partner I had a different strategy,” Conkic said. “I had to adjust myself to their game, and they had to adjust themselves to my game.”
Woodruff said the ability to adjust like that only enhances the skills in the singles game.
“There’s no question,” Woodruff said. “The way I like to look at it is that it’s about taking away your opponents’ options while giving you more. It’s not as much power, but it’s about positioning and angles. So you want to try to take away your opponents’ options and the things they can do to hurt you while at the same time maximizing the best chance for you to win the point.”
It’s all part of the reason doubles play is so exciting. Flip the channel and land on a tennis tournament being shown on television on any random Saturday, and it’s most always singles play. Doubles has become a unique quality to the college game, although Woodruff said the club scene is packed with amateur doubles players for simple recreation purposes. Conkic isn’t surprised. He said for an average fan, doubles is the most exciting part of the game.
“If I were in the crowd, I would say doubles is more fun, but that’s just a personal opinion,” Conkic said. “It’s a faster game and it’s more attractive. Points only last two or three shots. It’s mostly serve, return and then first volley. You see a lot more tricky shots, whereas in singles it’s more of a routine and strategy that players utilize.”
It’s that excitement on which the Tennessee team thrives. It’s because their practice is paying off during the matches.
“I hope the fans come out and watch us play and have some sort of appreciation of what we’re doing, particularly this year,” Woodruff said. “We’re playing very fundamentally sound, textbook doubles – at least that’s what we’re trying to teach – and I see the fruits of our labor coming together every day.”