Nov. 19, 2009
BY JOSH PATE
The number sits by his name almost like a salutation by now. With the fall season wrapped up and the newest ITA college tennis rankings not due out until January, that No. 2 in front of John-Patrick Smith's name is quite a marble in the bag.
For Smith - his friends call him J.P. - it's part of the plan.
"J.P. is a very driven individual," said Tennessee's tennis coach Sam Winterbotham. "He knows what he wants and sets the plan in motion to get it. That in itself has been one of the most impressive things from him - and for his teammates to see."
Smith is coming off one of the most accomplished fall seasons in recent memory at UT. In October he won the ITA All-American singles title with an ace serve on match point, becoming the first player from Tennessee to win the event.
Later that day, he teamed with fellow junior Boris Conkic to win the doubles championship after two grueling days of scheduling. It was the first time a school has won both singles and doubles championships since 1998, and Smith became just the third player to ever take the double whammy at the tournament.
Funny thing is that Smith had only practiced with Conkic for less than two days before the Vols went to Tulsa, Okla., for the tournament.
Just another day at work for Smith, right? He won singles and doubles titles a month earlier at the UVa Invitational, so sweeping the weekend wasn't uncharted water. Still, it was tough.
"It was demanding," said Smith, who played for six hours that Saturday and then in the championship matches on Sunday. "One day it was cold out, then the following day it was hot, then the next day it was freezing. In the singles final I didn't eat anything in the morning and didn't eat anything after that because I had to play two doubles matches in a row and then run to the airport to take the plane back to Knoxville. It's all good stuff. It will help me as I get prepared for the future.
"I think it's improved me as a person, and my game as well. To play 11 matches in four days, it gives me that confidence in knowing that I can compete, especially when it comes to the spring, which is what it's all about."
Smith finished the fall 16-3 in singles play and 16-3 in doubles play. He and roommate Davey Sandgren are the No. 1 doubles tandem in the ITA rankings. And when that new ITA ranking comes out Jan. 5, the top spot may be up for grabs in singles, too.
"The wins over the ranked guys will get you the high rankings in singles and doubles, so you always want to play great opponents just because it gives you the opportunity to improve your own ranking," Smith said. "It will really help my game in the spring. I've had a pretty good run against them lately, which is good."
Smith knows the tables are also turned. For every ranked player he faces, his opponent is the underdog with Smith being the prize atop the pedestal.
"Every ranked player is obviously a very good tennis player. Usually, they have the same opportunity as we do; they want to beat a ranked opponent to improve their ranking. So they're always out to get you like that," Smith said. "Other than that, it's a great opportunity to see where you stand against other players in college tennis right now in the fall so that when it comes to the spring you are ready for it."
Spring, spring, spring. It's obviously a concentration for Smith.
In collegiate tennis, the fall season is one for individual play at tournaments although most teams send multiple players from their roster to compete. But the spring is team competition. It's Southeastern Conference play against rivals. It's teamwork. And with any team, there's got to be a leader.
"J.P. is the best kind of leader. If he does talk and he has something to say, his teammates are going to listen because he's not a person who's going to speak lightly," Winterbotham said. "The biggest and most important thing about J.P. is that he comes in and works hard every day. That's the best kind of leadership a coach can ask for out of his players."
To expect Smith to be that kind of leader after more than two years in the system isn't far-fetched. But before he became a Vol, Winterbotham knew the transition would be tough for Smith, an Australian who was strictly familiar with the international style of play. The difference? Collegiate tennis has team characteristics no matter if it's fall or spring season: everyone wears the same logo and color, plays for the same traditions, fights for each other. Internationally, it's an individual sport.
Smith's success in the fall season shows he's comfortable in that individual setting, but he's always been a team player, too. He grew up playing cricket and faced a tough decision when choosing to set the bat down and keep the racket in hand. When he chose Tennessee, he knew the move from Townsville, Australia, to Knoxville would be a big change for many reasons.
"Before I came over here, Sam told me, `You don't know what it's like to play in a college match until you actually do it,'" Smith said. "That was so true because I wasn't aware of the surroundings and how everyone competed. In international play, you don't have that team atmosphere where six guys are on the same team, on the same court, in the same facility, at the same time. It's usually individually. You don't get that great college atmosphere.
"It's really helped me a lot. I've gone through a lot of matches with adversity at times - being down a set at a break - and I've been able to come back and win those. It will hopefully help me after college when I'm playing in international tournaments."
That's the long-term goal. Professional tennis isn't that far away, although Smith insists he hasn't thought that much about the future. Hard to believe, until one begins to consider the puzzle pieces that lie before Smith. There are more championships up for grabs, both individually and for the team. And then there's a senior season. It's all time for Smith to do what many say he does best -- improve.
"Every day, J.P. tries to get better," Winterbotham said. "If you're on the court with him, you better be ready to work. He pushes his teammates in that regard. He's excelling. He's somebody that as coaches, you don't get these guys in your program often."