April 9, 2011
By Amanda Pruitt
Great players. Great leaders. Great teammates. All words that describe the Tennessee tennis senior class, and for good reason.
Boris Conkic, Matteo Fago and John-Patrick Smith have led the four-year charge in the Vols' return among the elite programs in college tennis. The three seniors, hailing from Serbia, Italy and Australia respectively, will be honored for their career accomplishments Sunday when the fourth-ranked Vols host Florida at 1 p.m.
Numbers alone can't tell the story, but they provide some real evidence for this declaration: Tennessee's three seniors represent perhaps the most influential signing class in tennis program history.
While the multiple All-America and All-SEC accolades alone make a strong case, the team success is an even stronger indication of the seniors' importance on and off the court for the Vols. From climbing the national rankings to hoisting an SEC Tournament trophy with teammates, here are 10 facts that set these three apart:
Once upon a time, the three seniors started out as three recruits, and Sam Winterbotham struck gold with his first signing class as Tennessee's head coach. First to arrive on campus were Smith and Conkic for the fall 2007 season, and Fago joined the team just before the spring season started.
Smith, a native of Townsville, Australia, was one of the most highly-anticipated recruits in recent memory at Tennessee after being ranked in the top 10 in the International Tennis Federation's junior world rankings. He was so highly regarded that he was nationally ranked before he had played a single college match. He came to Tennessee partially at the advice of eventual doubles partner and fellow countryman Kaden Hensel.
Conkic came to the Vols from Novi Sad, Serbia, and like Smith, he had enjoyed tremendous tennis success before arriving at Tennessee. He had an ATP ranking of No. 573 and was among the top-ranked players in Europe as a junior.
Conkic was partially responsible for Fago's arrival to campus. The two met while playing a tournament circuit in Egypt, and Conkic talked about his plans for playing tennis in America. The only factor that could have stopped Fago from playing college tennis was the language barrier. The native of Ceprano, Italy, moved to Knoxville on his own dime and learned English in a hurry in order to join the program in time for the 2008 team season.
Conkic did not take long to become the first individual champion in the signing class, taking the singles trophy at the UNLV Fall Classic in the fall of 2007. Eventually, Smith and Fago also took individual titles of their own, with Smith leading the trio with six titles during his sophomore and junior seasons.
The most notable titles were captured in during the 2009 fall season on a cold, dreary day in Tulsa, Okla. Smith and Conkic made history by sweeping both titles at the ITA All-American Championships, the first national event of the season, and Smith became the third player in tournament history to ever win the singles and doubles titles the same year. Remarkably, the two won the doubles trophy despite having never played a match together before the tournament.
For a look at the 11 individual titles (technically 10 because Conkic and Smith share a trophy):
John-Patrick Smith (6)
2009 SEC Coaches Indoor Championships
2009 UVA Ranked Plus One Invitational
2009 ITA All-American Championships
2009 SEC Indoor Championships (with Davey Sandgren)
2009 UVA Ranked Plus One Invitational (with Davey Sandgren)
2009 ITA All-American Championships (with Boris Conkic)
Boris Conkic (4)
2007 UNLV Fall Classic
2010 SEC Coaches Indoor Championships
2009 ITA All-American Championships (with John-Patrick Smith)
2009 ITA Ohio Valley Regional Championships (with Rhyne Williams)
Matteo Fago (1)
2010 Crimson Tide Fall Invitational
Tennessee was ranked 25th as a team when Conkic, Fago and Smith started their collegiate careers, but the three will leave the program better than they found it. The Vols have finished in the top 10 each of the last three seasons, including a second-place finish last year after Tennessee reached the finals of the NCAA Championships for the third time in program history.
Tennessee's seniors have a combined seven All-SEC honors. Conkic and Smith are both three-time honorees, with Smith also having the 2008 Freshman of the Year and 2010 Player of the Year trophies to his name as well. Fago was named All-SEC after his sophomore season.
Not surprisingly, the three were named to the SEC All-Freshman Team their first year. Conkic also collected 2010 SEC Championships All-Tournament Team honors, and Smith was named Most Valuable Player.
Fago leads all active Vols with 32 career victories in SEC regular-season play. He has a 32-8 record and finished a perfect 11-0 for the Vols his freshman year, becoming the first UT player in 18 years to go undefeated in conference.
Smith is not far behind, having recorded his 30th career SEC singles victory on Friday against South Carolina.
As a team, Tennessee has won 95 matches the last four seasons. The Vols won 77 dual matches through the first three seasons of the seniors' career, the most victories in a three-year period in program history. Last season, the Vols recorded its second 30-win year in program history and finished 31-2
Defending the home courts is always important, and under the watch of Conkic, Fago and Smith, the Vols have done just that. Over the last four seasons, the Vols have a 52-2 record in dual matches played on the Knoxville campus. Tennessee has won its last 32 home matches and the last 19 home SEC matches.
Smith has the longest active home winning streak on the team, having won his last 31 matches at Goodfriend Tennis Center and Barksdale Stadium.
Only four Vols have ever won at 100 career matches in both singles and doubles, and two of those players are current seniors. Smith reached both milestones last year, and Conkic recorded win No. 100 in the categories during the Vols' return to the finals of the ITA National Team Indoor Championships. Conkic enters his final home match with 103 singles and 108 doubles wins.
Whether you look at the sheer number of victories or the closet full of awards ranging from performance-based trophies to academic achievements to national sportsmanship honors, Smith has enjoyed a remarkable career so far. He has done little else besides win during his career at Tennessee, with most of those victories coming at the top of the Vols' lineup. The three-time singles and doubles All-America ranks second in UT history with 145 singles wins. Earlier this season, he surpassed Byron Talbot (1985-88) as the career doubles leader and now has 139 victories.
Why not end with No. 1? The Vols currently boast the top-ranked doubles pairing in the country in Conkic and Smith, who are 20-1 this spring and have won their last 15 matches. But that is not the only reason to recognize that number.
Earlier this season, Tennessee rose to the No. 1 national team ranking for the second time in program history thanks to a demanding road schedule. Although the Vols only held the ranking for a week, it was the first time Tennessee had been at the top of college tennis since a brief stint during the 1990 season in which the Vols went 34-1.
Smith is familiar with the top ranking. After all, he's held that distinction in both singles and doubles. He has been ranked No. 1 in singles on two occasions, including during the fall season. Not only is he currently occupying the top spot in doubles, he has been ranked No. 1 in 2009 and 2010 with Davey Sandgren. Smith and Sandgren reached the NCAA Doubles Championship the last two seasons.