July 22, 2011
BY AMANDA PRUITT
A player at No. 1? That can be explained away a dozen times.
Here's how the Vols have finished in the national rankings each of the last five seasons:
But what happens when two players from one team reach the top of singles poll in the same year? Or that the same school has doubles teams earn the end-year No. 1 ranking in two of three seasons? How about when teammates face each other in the semifinals of the NCAA Singles Championships?
Then, you have to suspect there's a trend.
At Tennessee, that trend has become a reality as the Vols have reentered the national tennis picture in practically every competition. A major force behind the rise of the program is head coach Sam Winterbotham and associate head coach Chris Woodruff, who just finished their fifth season coaching together at UT.
When Winterbotham and Woodruff teamed up in the fall of 2006, the Vols had just endured an uncharacteristic 9-11 season and were ranked 50th nationally. In a matter of months, Tennessee quickly reversed the slide down the rankings, rising to 25th by the end of 2007.
Since then, the Vols have had four consecutive years of top 10 finishes as a team in the national rankings, a pair of SEC regular-season titles and an appearance in the finals of the NCAA Championships. All told, not bad in five years' work.
For a closer look at the new state of Tennessee tennis, here is a by-the-numbers tour behind Winterbotham, Woodruff and the Vols' return among the elite programs:
That's 101 dual-match victories the last four seasons, which is the most in a four-year period in program history. Tennessee collected 98 victories from 1984-87.
The past two years, the Vols have been among the major national contenders as a team. They have spent every polling period in 2010 and 2011 ranked within the top five.
What does that have to do with No. 1? Well, in March, the Vols reached the very top of the national college rankingsfor the first time since 1990.
Smith has also practically become an institution at the No. 1 doubles ranking -- or at least close to it -- the last three seasons. He and Davey Sandgren were the end-year top-ranked doubles pair in 2009 and parts of 2010, thanks to reaching the finals of the NCAA doubles championships both years.
Smith regained the No. 1 ranking again this spring with Boris Conkic, and the two of them were named ITA Doubles Team of the Year after sustaining that top ranking from March 1 through the end of May.
The Vols had a program-record four Vols earn All-America honors in 2011: Conkic, Smith, Williams and Tennys Sandgren.
Smith became Tennessee's first four-time All-American in addition to becoming just the second player in college tennis history to earn All-America honors in both singles and doubles all four years of his career.
In 2010, the Vols marched to the finals for the third time in program history. A year later, they reached the quarterfinals.
In five years, Tennessee has boasted 14 selections to the annual 64-player field of the NCAA Singles Championships. That's averaging nearly three a season.
The Vols haven't just been in the tournament, however. They have been playing for titles.
As an unseeded freshman who has been playing No. 2 in the lineup a majority of the year, Smith made an improbable run to the NCAA singles title match in 2008. Three years later, Williams reached the championship, but only did so by beating teammate and doubles partner Tennys Sandgren in the semifinals.
For the most part, the Vols have been exceptional in the other national individual events as well. Smith became the third player to ever win the singles and doubles titles in the same year at the ITA All-American Championships in 2009, taking the doubles title with Conkic. Williams became the first Vol since Paul Annacone in 1984 to capture the singles trophy at the USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships.
More eye-popping than that, perhaps, is that the Vols are a combined 21-1 in conference play the last two years on their way to consecutive regular-season titles.
Winterbotham is now just one of two Tennessee coaches to have ever won two SEC tennis titles. Mike DePalmer Sr. led the Vols to championships in 1986 and 1990.
As head coach of the Vols, Winterbotham is 118-26, good for an .819 winning percentage.
Tennessee has boasted 17 All-SEC selections the last five years, 13 of them being first-team picks. In 2010, the Vols had a school-record five players make the All-SEC team. Last season, Tennessee had four first-team picks: Conkic, Sandgren, Smith and Williams.
The Vols have earned a fair share of end-season awards as well.
Smith overwhelming led the Vols in that category, taking home more accolades than just about any other athlete in conference history. He became the first Vol to earn multiple SEC Player of the Year honors in 2010 and 2011, and in June, he was named the fourth Tennessee student-athlete to be voted as the SEC Male Athlete of the Year by conference athletic directors.
In five years, two Vols have been named SEC Freshman of the Year: Smith in 2008 and Williams in 2010. Winterbotham picked up coach of the year honors in 2008 and 2010.