Aug 23, 2013
As the new school year gets underway at Tennessee, men's tennis coach associate head coach Chris Woodruff has much to discuss.
First, there are plenty of familiar faces back from a UT team that reached the NCAA quarterfinals and ended the year ranked sixth nationally.
The top four of the Vols singles lineup are back, including reigning SEC Player of the Year Mikelis Libietis, All-American Hunter Reese, All-SEC performer Jarryd Chaplin and Brandon Fickey. All four are coming off career years to lead Tennessee to its fifth top-10 finish in six years.
Secondly, the Vols have four new players on the roster to start the fall: freshmen Markus Kerner (Tallinn, Estonia), Sean Karl (Brentwood, Tenn.) and Sunay Bhat (Knoxville, Tenn.) and junior transfer from Georgia Southern Andrew Dromsky (Martinez, Ga.). Karl's arrival on Rocky Top has been met with nationwide admiration from the tennis community after his battle with cancer over the last year.
Now the Vols are getting their training underway for the fall season. From running to lifting weights to playing individual tournament events, the coming months promise to be busy ones.
For the first Serve & Volley interview of 2013-14, Woodruff talks the 2013 season that was, the fall season to come and memories from the U.S. Open.
Q: We just came back from summer break. It's a big recruiting time for you but also a chance to take a break. What have you been up to the last few months?
A: "It's been busy. With three kids, we're never really off fully. The summer's a time to recruit, but it's also a time to just go on vacations and explore. We've watched our kids grow. We had several big things. Both older kids learned how to water ski this summer, and for eight and ten, that's pretty impressive. Carter learned to walk. He took his first step. So it was a pretty big summer away from tennis, which is good."
Q: We've got Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese being honored at the U.S. Open as part of the ITA All-Star Team. That's pretty much the last award from last year's accomplishments. Now that we're a few months removed from last season, what are your final thoughts about the year?
A: "I think for everybody involved with our family here, it was a remarkable year. We had some downs, but we also certainly had some highs. To finish where we did in the rankings and play for an SEC championship, it's really a credit for the job Sam (Winterbotham) does in getting our guys ready to play and the endless hours that our volunteer coach Ben (Testerman) spends out here. He doesn't have to do that. And just for our guys embracing what we try to teach them and the team concept. They did a wonderful job of supporting each other. The year was an incredible success."
Q: Another award that came at the end of the year was you and head coach Sam Winterbotham being selected as the ITA national coaches of the year. It's not often that one school wins both awards. What does that say about what the two of you have accomplished together the last few years?
A: "Well, we understand each other. In order to have a successful team or a successful business, I think there has to be an incredible sense of understanding between the people you work with and you have to know what each other's strengths and weaknesses are.
"Also, a lot of credit to the guys. You know, players can make a coach look really good, and players can make a coach look really bad. We were fortunate since I've been here that we have a lot of good guys on the team who enjoy learning, trying their best and competing hard."
Q: Going back to the U.S. Open, I remember you saying that was your favorite slam as a player. Why is that?
A: "If you will, it's like our national championship. It's in New York. Just to go up there, New York is such a culture shock from Knoxville, Tennessee. Everything happens so fast. I also appreciated the fans. The Wimbledon fans and the U.S. Open fans are polar opposites from one another. Just playing in New York, it's an electric place to be, especially at night. Going there, you really got that sense of excitement in the air. I guess you can attribute a lot of that to just what New York City is all about."
Q: Any particular favorite memory?
A: "Unfortunately, I can remember getting hurt. That's not a favorite memory. I was warming up and getting ready to play Michael Chang on Monday. It was Labor Day. That's kind of the big thing, if you can make it to the second week of a grand slam. I knew I was going to be on t.v., and I was still new on the scene. It's not a happy memory, but it's a memory." (laughs)
Q: Tennys Sandgren played in qualifying at this year's U.S. Open. Rhyne Williams and John-Patrick Smith will be in the main draws next week. What's it like for you to have guys that are consistently starting to appear on that stage?
A: "I think the biggest thing for me is that I've been able to stay in touch with them all. I talk to Tennys, I talk to Rhyne and I talk to JP. Not a ton to all of them, but once a month or twice a month, I'll send them a text or pick up the phone or they'll come by the facility. I think for me it's just keep in touch with them. They were my friends. Obviously playing here, we developed a close bond. I think that's just again the embodiment of being a family is keeping in touch with the people you care about.
"Yes, I'm excited for them that they're able to play in the U.S. Open. Yes, I hope they have great careers and can make millions and millions of dollars and win numerous titles. They've moved on to a different phase in their lives, and I'm still able to share their next step away from the University of Tennessee."
Q: Starting to look toward the new school year, we've got four newcomers on the roster. Tell us about them.
A: "I think that's one thing that makes our job exciting, and I think that's one thing that makes coaching interesting is the turnovers. You have four years -- in some cases guys stay five. I think part of creating and seeing new opportunities to be successful is how you mold the new guys and seeing how they fit in.
"I'm really excited about this year. Some of the guys I knew. I knew Sunay before. He's from Knoxville. I've gotten to know Sean. I've been following him and have gotten to know the family really well over the years. Those guys I know. I didn't know Andrew or Markus, but I'm really excited. Everyone seems to be positive. When you're going into a new situation as we all are -- as a coaching staff and the new guys -- it starts with a great attitude. With a great attitude, you can achieve great things, and I can definitely see that at least on the surface with all four of them."
Q: How rewarding has it been to see Sean Karl able to make it here on campus after what he's been through the last year?
A: "For me, it's just been remarkable. I've found myself periodically just sitting down and almost crying. The most incredible thing to me is that you can never tell. I visited him a couple times, and I never heard him complain. He's been here on campus, has a smile on his face. He's never at least outwardly looking like he's feeling sorry for himself. I think that's going to bode very well for him regardless of whether he plays professional tennis. He always has a smile on his face.
"I know he was an inspiration to last year's team. I know we did a few things. We had some different sayings and slogans throughout the season and wrote his name on our shoes and had towels and so on. He's really been an inspiration for us and I'm excited to have him in our family."
Q: Talking about the returning players, what are your goals for them during the fall season?
A: "I just think it's all about being consistent. I don't have any lofty expectations for them. I know they're all great players. They're all great people. I don't think I have to recreate anything or push them harder this year because they're older. They've been around the system, and they know what's expected. I think they'll get better through more reps, showing up every day and just doing the best they can. That's one reason why they've done so well to this point. Every day they've just shown up and worked hard.
"They know how to be great. They have a vision. All of them if you ask them what they want to do after they get done here, some would say be pros, some would say they want to work in the corporate world. They're all decisive guys."
Q: Is it ever interesting to sit back and think about the team two years ago and how much each of them have changed since then?
A: "It is. It's a testament to their wanting to embrace what we do. It just speaks volumes for the kind of character they have. They want to learn. It just speaks volumes for who they are as people."
Q: For those who don't know, what is the fall tennis season like, in terms of what the team does in training?
A: "Fall training for me is just about getting the guys reacquainted with who we are and what's expected of our program. It's how we work on the court. It's how we embrace being around one another, how we treat one another. And work. Fall is about being consistent. You have to be consistent now because you will certainly need the consistency to carry you through the spring.
"Fall is also about getting the new guys invested in doubles. Doubles, as you well know, is something that's very close to me and the success of this program. In order for us to be successful in the spring, the new guys must understand the doubles system. There will be a lot of teaching, at least from my angle on how to get the guys better in doubles and to understand where they need to be on the court to play effective doubles."
Q: Is there any roadmap you have between now and January?
A: "Conditioning is quite tough right now, and it will be tough the next three, three-and-a-half months until we break for Thanksgiving and kind of shut things down going into the holidays. We need to be in good shape. How I see things going is that we need to get everybody on the same page with doubles, what's going to happen there. We'd like to have everyone healthy. We'd like to have everybody invested in the same goals. The guys will figure out the goals, what they want to do. We need to have everybody on the same page with those goals and working together to achieve those goals. Those are the big things. Those are all entwined together, and if they do come to fruition, you're looking at peaking in March, which is really where we want to start peaking. That's how I see the roadmap going forward."