Aug. 3, 2012
BY AMANDA PRUITT
IRVINE, Calif. -- For three weeks, John-Patrick Smith was back in orange.
Back to competing in team tennis, just like his not-so-distant college days at Tennessee. Back to enjoying a true home court experience, complete with the home crowd. Back to having a coach on court and teammates nearby.
And much like he did for the Vols, Smith assumed the role of leading the way in wins.
In July, Smith swapped his old Tennessee orange for the orange and blue of the Orange County Breakers in the American professional co-ed league, World TeamTennis.
The season was a whirlwind cross-country tour, with a 14-match schedule that once had the Breakers playing five matches in five states during a six-day stretch before returning home for the last week of the season. Smith won his final seven singles matches to help lead the Breakers to the top seed in the Western Division and was voted the WTT Male Rookie of the Year for his efforts.
It was busy, but all told, the experience was a nice reminder of college tennis for the 2011 SEC Athlete of the Year and eight-time All-American.
"The whole team environment, you kind of miss that about college," Smith said. "It's great to do this for a couple weeks and just re-experience the whole atmosphere."
AGAINST THE BEST
World TeamTennis, founded by tennis great Billie Jean King, is a decades-old July detour in the midst of the United States hard court tournament season. Its unique match format includes an abbreviated set of men's singles, women's singles, men's doubles, women's doubles and men's doubles with games adding up to form team scores.
While WTT doesn't award professional tour points -- the precious numbers that determine a tennis player's all-important world ranking -- the league is filled with top-tier stars and players who have retired from the grind of the tour but have a closet full of singles trophies back home like John McEnroe.
Smith served as the only men's singles player for the Breakers and also played men's doubles every match, so he faced the greats day-in day out. For one set, he was taking on the likes of current world No. 15 Mardy Fish, No. 33 Kevin Anderson and No. 38 Sam Querry, in addition to former top stars like Australia's Mark Philippoussis, a former top-10 player.
WTT wasn't just about playing the best for Smith. He was winning.
Smith defeated Anderson of the Sacramento Capitals on back-to-back nights during the final week of the season. He ended the year ranked third in singles, winning 56.8 percent of his games.
"I just really realized where I need to be and where my game needs to be as well," Smith said. "Hopefully now when I get back to the circuit, I can bring this sort of intensity level to my other matches."
Some squads in the eight-team WTT relied on top-10 professionals offering their services for a match or so. The Breakers relied on the same five players all season, pretty much all of whom were relative unknowns aside from marquee star and former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport.
Smith teamed up in doubles with WTT veteran Travis Parrrott, who played his college career at Tennessee rival Georgia. Despite different preferences for SEC teams, Smith and Parrott formed the second-ranked doubles team in the league and dominated their final two matches by 5-0 scores.
"He graduated about 10 years ago, so I let that one slide," Smith joked.
In addition to Parrott and Davenport, the Breakers also included NCAA women's singles champion Jana Juricova and Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany, who left the team midway through the season to compete in the Olympics.
King, the founder of the league herself, was a fixture at the Breakers' home venue at the Bren Events Center in Irvine, Calif., for the final week of the season. The 39-time grand slam winner attended several of the Breakers' training sessions and offered her advice.
"Her insight is unbelievable and the way she can detect what's going on in tennis and the patterns of play is remarkable," Smith said. "Obviously she's one of the greatest of all time, and she's a really nice lady. It's been a privilege to work with her and work with Lindsay too. She was awesome as well."
BACK TO WORK
The week before he joined the Breakers, Smith was playing the tournament of his professional life.
Smith had to win two matches to even qualify for the field at the $50,000 Winnetka Challenger in Illinois, but once he reached the main draw, he took advantage of his opportunities. He became the first Vol since Chris Woodruff in 1996 to win a Challenger-level singles title, fighting off two match points to beat Sergei Bubka of Ukraine 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3).
The win bumped Smith up to No. 210 in the ATP singles rankings.
"I played well in Winnetka, then I had to bust it down here to get ready for World TeamTennis, so I haven't really had a break yet," Smith said. "So I'm just trying to keep the body fresh and hopefully, it'll hold up. I think everything's getting better. I definitely need to get outside a little more now that it's summertime and there's more tennis outdoors."
The WTT regular season was just a pause in the tournament action for Smith, who is already back on tour in search of the points that could propel him into the top 200 for the first time.
He picked up on the circuit trail the day after the home finale against the Boston Lobsters, catching a plane to Vancouver for this week's $100,000 Challenger event, where he has reached the semifinals of doubles with John Peers.
After that, Smith is still finalizing his tour schedule but his first WTT experience still includes one more weekend. Thanks in part to his winning ways in singles and doubles for the Breakers, the team will compete in the WTT final weekend starting Sept. 14 in Charleston, S.C.