Oct. 14, 2009
BY AMANDA PRUITT
Saturday's competition at the ITA All-American Championships became a test of tennis endurance, and junior John-Patrick Smith proved he was well prepared for the challenge.
Smith played for more than six hours Saturday, fighting through two three-set rounds of singles before joining teammate Boris Conkic for a doubles match that went into a tiebreaker.
The next day, Smith defeated Oklahoma's Andrei Daescu 7-6 (7), 6-3 in the championship in singles in Tulsa, Okla. Smith and Conkic rolled through two more rounds to win the doubles title.
Smith opened Saturday with a long quarterfinal victory over Tulsa's Ashley Watling. Not long afterwards, Smith returned to the court his biggest match of the early season against third-ranked Robert Farah of Southern California.
Farah won the first set 6-3, but Smith bounced back to take the next two sets 6-2, 6-2 to earn a spot in the championship match.
By then, the sun had already set. The lights at the outdoor Michael D. Case Tennis Center were illuminating the court. The temperature had dipped below 50 degrees. Everyone else had finished for the evening.
Yet Smith still had one match to go.
Conkic, who had spent the afternoon cheering on Smith, now joined him on the court for doubles against the No. 13 pair from Texas. If weariness was to take its toll, it was then. The Tennessee duo fell behind 6-3 -- just two games from elimination -- but rallied back to tie the match at 6-6.
Smith and Conkic eventually prevailed 10-8 in a tiebreaker.
Training Pays Off
Smith's two titles proved, among other things, that conditioning off the court was definitely important as the tournament entered the final days.
"J.P. was just phenomenal," Conkic said. "That guy just fights as hard as anyone I've seen my life. He's just extremely smart on the court, and he knows how to win. He was extremely prepared for the tournament.
"His fitness was great. That's a reason why he was able to win so many matches."
In the four-day tournament, Smith played through 11 matches, with six of them on the final two days of competition.
Although the team season is still months away, Smith said the All-American was good preparation for the important May events where endurance is a requirement for success.
"We've been working hard here at UT and the specific programs we have in play to make us stronger," Smith said. "It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I can win six matches and roll out the next day and play doubles as well."
Smith and Conkic only practiced together for a day and a half before leaving for Tulsa to play doubles together for the first time. Unranked as a pair, they drew Farah and Steve Johnson, the No. 3-ranked team in the country, in the first round and won 9-7. They later dispatched of the No. 6, 13 and 18 teams.
By no means did they ever consider themselves underdogs, Conkic said.
"I knew J.P. was ranked No. 1 in doubles in the country," said Conkic, who was ranked 22nd in doubles last season with junior Matteo Fago. "We have really good chances of winning every single event. We just try to keep to our routine and play match by match."
The learning curve was fast for Smith and Conkic. A few rounds into the tournament and the two were already causing matchup problems, with Conkic hitting more balls and Smith taking control of the net. They picked up momentum in the final day, winning the semifinals 8-3 and the finals 8-4.
"At the start, we were just trying to get a feel for each other," Smith said. "Towards the end, we had a lot more game strategies against other teams and worked out plays and formations."
The All-American was a display of the Volunteers' roster depth with multiple options for doubles pairings. Last season, Smith and senior Davey Sandgren finished with 32 doubles victories and ended the season ranked No. 1. They have already teamed up this season for the championship at the UVa Plus One Invitational.
"That's really good for our team, knowing that if Boris plays with another person, they can win," Smith said. "Or if I play with somebody else, we can do well. Overall, we have a lot of depth now, and that's really going to help us in the start of the SEC season and at the NCAAs."
Before Smith and Conkic won the singles and doubles titles, no team had won both titles in the same year since James Blake and Harvard did so in 1998. Daniel Courcol and Mississippi State was the first to accomplish the feat in 1992.
Smith has earned 10 consecutive singles victories, a career high. He has also started the season a perfect 8-0, the eight consecutive wins also a personal best. Conkic improved to 7-1 in doubles this season.
The Vols return to action Oct. 22 for the ITA Regional in Bloomington, Ind. The ITA National Indoor Championships, the last major tournament of the fall season, starts Nov. 5 in New Haven, Conn.