Nov. 7, 2011
This is the first of a two-part series looking at the three Vols who are just starting their careers on the professional tennis circuit: John-Patrick Smith, Rhyne Williams and Tennys Sandgren. The three All-Americans are playing in the $50,000 Knoxville Challenger beginning Tuesday and Wednesday at the Goodfriend Tennis Center.
BY JOSH PATE
Sam Winterbotham likes hard work, but he hates the term. Tennessee's men's tennis coach has a good argument.
"Hard work is something we all talk about, and everybody says, yes, you've got to work hard. When you put `hard' next to `work,' it doesn't sound necessarily positive," Winterbotham said. "But we want guys who enjoy working. We want the environment to be an enjoyable environment, a fun environment that is challenging. It's good work. It's challenging work, enjoyable work. That's what our program is about."
Label it whatever you wish, but Winterbotham and his staff at Tennessee have been pumping out the hard workers as of late. Tennessee tennis has enjoyed a recent run atop the NCAA ladder. Since Winterbotham took over as head coach in 2007, the Vols have dominated the Southeastern Conference and splashed the national scene. Tennessee's records look like this:
2007: 17-8, 7-4 SEC
2008: 23-4, 9-2 SEC
2009: 23-7, 8-3 SEC
2010: 31-2, 11-0 SEC (conference champions, NCAA finalists)
2011: 24-5, 10-1 SEC (conference champions)
Winterbotham's teams have displayed a competitive fire that has translated into professional preparation. Right now, three members of last year's team that made it to the NCAA quarterfinals are now playing professionally: John-Patrick Smith, Rhyne Williams and Tennys Sandgren.
"We've got two of the best coaches in the country, hands down," Smith said. "We've got Sam and Chris Woodruff, two coaches who care so much about player development, going to school, as well as future development when you grow up. Having that care factor really helps because you're away from home and not really familiar with your surroundings. When you have people who care so much about you, it's going to make the transition a lot easier."
Smith's use of the term "we" is noteworthy. The Australia native came to Knoxville to play tennis, earned his degree while becoming the top-ranked tennis player in college, and is now in his first season professionally. Yet he still uses counseling from Winterbotham and Woodruff and returns from the tour to train in Knoxville.
"In tennis, they've developed many players," Smith said. "Tennessee has such a great tradition of being a tennis school. When they come to recruit you, it obviously means they see a lot in you and it's a great opportunity to develop physically and mentally. This school has a tradition of the way it handles itself and the way it treats players. That's why I've really enjoyed being here and sad the four years came to an end."
Williams agreed that the staff's expectations of each player helped increase the performances on the court. Ultimately, that prepared him and the others to leap into the professional ranks.
"They're such a great coaching staff and a great team," Williams said. "They push you extremely hard. We just had a great team at UT, including the coaches and trainers and our strength coach. They did a great job of getting Tennys, J.P. and I prepared to take that next step."
Complementing Winterbotham's knowledge of the game is Woodruff's professional experience. Woodruff is Tennessee's most accomplished pro player, having been ranked No. 12 in singles and No. 73 in doubles during his professional career. He won a pair of singles titles but may be known to some as the player who beat No. 3-ranked Andre Agassi in the 1996 French Open. Needless to say, Woodruff's credentials carry weight among the UT players, present and past.
"Having someone like Coach Woodruff who did all this stuff and did it really well, having him as a coach really helps," Sandgren said. "It's somebody who understands what you're trying to do and where your goals are at."
The professional experience is used in coaching strategy, both to win matches for Tennessee and to help the student-athletes advance their careers.
"We're unique in terms of the experience we have on our staff to know what it takes to be a professional," Winterbotham said. "Chris Woodruff has been ranked as high as 12th in the world and had a successful professional career coming from the college ranks. We tap into Chris's perspective in terms of what the transition needs to be. You add that to my ideas of what it takes to be successful in general, and I think we have a really great base for a program that's going to produce players who want to go on and play professionally."
Winterbotham said when a student-athlete walks in the door at Tennessee, he asks for two things: honesty and commitment. Both of those characteristics can help individuals achieve their goals. If playing professionally is on the list, then the staff becomes committed to helping the student-athlete not only for his four years at UT but for the rest of his career.
"The support system we have at UT to where we can come back and train there at times, it's phenomenal," Sandgren said. "The whole program is just geared to get you better."
The coaches then establish a baseline expectation of that student-athlete to where training is not just for routine practice. It becomes what Winterbotham calls "practice for a purpose."
"We talk about the honesty of the program, but we also talk about the level of commitment," Winterbotham said. "We're never going to quit on them. They know that. And we also require that in return; they're never to quit on us. With those things out there, you can be successful at anything you want to accomplish."
Therein lies the work. Hard work. Enjoyable work. Challenging work. Good work. Whatever you call it, it's making Tennessee's tennis program better while preparing Vols to move directly into the professional ranks.
"It takes a lot of effort to be successful in this program," Winterbotham said. "I agree that it's not always the case, but the people who are going to succeed are the ones who enjoy that, who enjoy work."