Personality counts more than passports to UT's tennis success

Personality counts more than passports to UT's tennis success

When Amanda Pruitt blogs live at University of Tennessee men's tennis matches, she has a far-flung audience.

The Conkics in Serbia are tuned in. So are the Fagos in Italy.

The Joneses are keeping up in Wales. On the far side of the globe, in North Queensland, Australia, the Smiths are keenly interested.

This spring, Pruitt, who works in the sports information office at UT, has had almost exclusively good news to dispense.

Tennessee is 26-1, ranked No. 2 in the nation and has swept through the SEC regular season and tournament unblemished.

When the Vols open NCAA tournament play here Saturday against Winthrop they are legitimate contenders for the national championship.

UT has come close before, reaching the championship match in 1990 and 2001, only to fall short.

This latest juggernaut is a blend of international and homegrown talent. Even the coaching staff reflects as much.

Sam Winterbotham, a 36-year-old Englishman, is in his fourth year as head coach at Tennessee. His associate head coach is Knoxville's own Chris Woodruff, who in 1993 became the only UT player to win an NCAA singles title.

The nucleus of this team is the junior class - John-Patrick Smith of Australia, Boris Conkic of Serbia and Matteo Fago of Italy.

Check most any college tennis roster, men's or women's, and you'll find a virtual United Nations of homelands.

"There may be 10 (prospects) in the U.S. coming out that year who can really help you win a national championship,'' Winterbotham said. "You can go to Australia, Serbia or Italy and get guys that would be top-10-level guys in the U.S.

"When you've got an athletic department that wants you to be successful, you're going to wherever the (talent) pool takes you.''

Waiting in the wings for next year is freshman Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India, who is redshirting because of an eligibility issue. Winterbotham described Gunneswaran as "a stud."

But for UT's men, a passport is not always required. The Vols' two seniors and the two freshman stars are Tennesseans.

Senior Davey Sandgren and his freshman brother Tennys are from Gallatin. Senior Matt Brewer and freshman Rhyne Williams are from Knoxville, as are two reserves on the roster, Taylor Patrick and Chris Williams.

"We're definitely recruiting inside out,'' Winterbotham said.

UT got lucky, geographically speaking, in that Tennys Sandgren and Rhyne Williams were two of the top junior players in the nation.

Their presence has elevated Tennessee from good to very good.

In each case, their decision wasn't choosing one school over another but, rather, whether to come to school at all or turn pro.

Williams, who plays No. 3 singles and teams with Conkic at No. 2 doubles, felt he needed to get stronger. There was no doubt where he would do it.

It's in the blood

"I've loved Tennessee my whole life,'' Williams said. "This is the place for me.''

Williams' grandfather, Mike DePalmer Sr., was UT's winningest coach from 1981-94. His mother, Michelle, was an All-American at UT. So was his uncle, Mike DePalmer Jr. (His dad, Bob, played tennis at Duke).

"And I have a real close relationship with Chris Woodruff,'' Williams said.

Growing up, Williams wasn't always on the tennis court. He also played baseball and loved to work on his self-described funky basketball shot.

"My family said they were going to love me no matter what sport I picked,'' he said. "I just decided to go with tennis. It was a tough decision.''

For Tennys Sandgren - undefeated in SEC play at No. 4 singles - it was a case of tagging along when his parents hauled older brother Davey to juniors events.

"I thought it was the biggest fun ever,'' Tennys said.

Said Davey, "We're really competitive in everything and that shows in tennis.

"That's why Tennys is so good right now, because we competed all the way through and he wanted to be better than me, which I think he is right now.''

Tennys didn't enroll at UT until January. He was playing on the "futures" circuit trying to decide whether to bypass college.

The game has taken him all over Europe, to Asia and South America. The travelogue toughened him mentally beyond his years.

"A lot of these places were not the nicest places,'' he said. "In November I spent three weeks in the Dominican Republic. Same cruddy hotel, hottest place you can be in November.

"But places like that, you're not going to go there and wimp out because it's not fun. You've gone there, so you better go play.''

A road trip to Kentucky or Florida? Piece of cake.

"If you're not having your best day, you can battle through it,'' he said, "because you've played in some tough spots.''

40-hour commute

John-Patrick Smith has already played (and lost) in the NCAA singles championship match (2008) and the doubles championship (2009, with Davey Sandgren).

He starts the NCAA tournament ranked No. 1 in singles by the ITA and as the No. 3 overall seed.

But his folks have never seen him play for UT in person.

"They dropped me off when I first came here,'' Smith said. "Hopefully, they'll come over for my Senior Day next year.''

Smith says his annual trip from Australia to Knoxville steals 40 hours out of his life, figuring time-zone changes and layovers.

Townsville, a city of 180,000, is on Australia's northeastern shore. It was a major base for the Allies to fight the Japanese in World War II.

The Great Barrier Reef offers surfing and scuba. Rugby is the top sport. Smith is an avid fan of the North Queensland Cowboys, who play in Dairy Farmers Stadium.

"I think it's a great place,'' he said. "It's home. It molded me as a person.''

UT has a history with Aussies, including the two coaches who preceded Winterbotham, Michael Fancutt and Chris Mahony.

"They put in a good word,'' Smith said. "I trusted their opinion and I'm really glad I came over.''

Barriers (and bombs)

Compared to Smith, the travel isn't quite so taxing for Boris Conkic or Matteo Fago. But the language barrier is another story.

Conkic is from Novi Sad, the second-largest city in Serbia.

"In the beginning here,'' he said, "it was really tough. I'm speaking English, my third language.

"With my dad I speak in Serbian and with my mom I speak Hungarian.''

Both of Conkic's parents were tennis national champions in what used to be Yugoslavia. So there was never any doubt what sport he would play.

Growing up in that part of the world was politically complicated. There was war in the early 1990s as Yugoslavia split apart.

Then, in 1999, the Kosovo war broke out. NATO planes bombed Novi Sad, destroying the strategic bridges over the Danube River.

"I was pretty scared,'' Conkic said, "but it wasn't like a real war.

"We were warned when the bombing would start, usually late at night.

"I kind of understood what was going on, but I didn't really want to think about it because I'm not that interested in politics.''

He was interested in parlaying tennis into a college education in the U.S. A friend had a link with Winterbotham and so it was on to Knoxville.

Fago comes from the small town of Ceprano, halfway between Rome and Naples.

"It's one of those places where everyone knows each other,'' he said. "If you go downtown, everyone is going to talk to you.''

No bombs. Plenty of sunshine. Snow skiing in the nearby mountains, or water skiing in the nearby Mediterranean.

Fago knew Conkic from the tennis circuit and followed his lead to Tennessee.

He barely spoke English.

"After a few months I got better at speaking and that really helped,'' he said.

"Culture-wise, even though it was different I didn't have much problem because the people here were very warm and friendly.''

Fagos mother, Ivana, follows her son's career via Pruitt's blog and comments in Italian. Pruitt responds by using a translation application.

The third European on the roster is Ed Jones, a freshman from Wales. Jones, who plays doubles with Fago, grew up on a farm near Carmarthen.

"Small town,'' he said. "They just got a big shopping center, first one they've had.''

When Jones got a recruiting e-mail from Winterbotham, he was impressed. Tennessee was the highest-ranked program to express interest.

"From then on I wanted to come to Tennessee,'' he said. "Some people from Wales and England who were a couple of years older than me said they wished they had gone to America to play.''

He misses mom's cooking and his favorite rugby team, the Llanelli Scarlets, but Jones knows his adjustment isn't as difficult as some of his mates.

"If I was ever struggling in school,'' he said, "I would just think of Matteo and how hard it must have been not speaking a word of English. That helps out a lot.''

When in Tennessee . . .

Winterbotham understands the international player's challenge. He was one.

Growing up in Shrewsbury, England, he played soccer and tennis. Through an agency that helps connect foreign players with scholarships he landed at Oklahoma Christian, an NAIA school.

"I didn't know Oklahoma Christian from Tennessee Wesleyan,'' he said with a laugh. "I was clueless.''

He had the game to move on to a big-time school but didn't and became the No. 1-ranked player in NAIA.

He coached at Baylor and Colorado before he was hired at UT by Mike Hamilton.

"The international players are coming from halfway 'round the world and they don't know anybody,'' Winterbotham said.

"What I notice is the ones who succeed in that are the ones who embrace the culture and try to fit in.

"At our program, we do a very good job of explaining that, how that's beneficial.''

His players get it. They give off the aura of a cohesive blended family.

And, of course, having local players to show the ropes helps.

"They know all the good places to eat,'' Jones said. "Rhyne's family have had us all around a few times and Taylor had us around at Thanksgiving last year.''

One thing they don't give up is their loyalty to the sports back home. Soccer, naturally, rules.

For Fago, it's AC Milan. For Conkic, it's hometown FK Vojvodina and Italy's Inter Milan. Jones is a Liverpool guy - when he's not talking international rugby trash with Smith.

The biggest diehard of them all is their coach, who is still ecstatic that Stoke City has returned to the English Premier League after years of relegation.

"Fox Soccer Channel,'' said Winterbotham, his face lighted up. "I get to watch Stoke City here in the States. Unbelievable.''

But they have a new team to root for, too - the one that plays in Neyland Stadium.

"I didn't like it at first,'' said Fago. "Then I got to learn the rules and now I'm a pretty big fan.

"We always go to the games together and have a good time.''

They have a good time. They also work extremely hard in an ultra-competitive atmosphere.

And they win big, this family assembled from near and far.

"If you get the right kind of personality in,'' Winterbotham said, "it doesn't matter where they're from.

"If you get the wrong kind of personality in, in that group they're found out. Whether they're from Tennessee or Timbuktu.''

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6276.

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Comments » 5

TonyGeist writes:

I've had the distinct honor and privilege of filming the Tennis team this season and I have to say I have never been around a better team in my entire life. Every player is open to interviews, any time, and always willing to help out. They're all genuinely nice guys and a team that anyone can root for. I honestly wish the team got more exposure, because as it stands now, they are the best kept secret at the University of Tennessee.

Bigger_Al writes:

Nice read, nice group of players. Let's win a National Championship!

volfan53 writes:

Just goes to show you that you do not have to be a prima donna to excel at sports. This group of young men will make us proud this year. Go all the way boys. Win the title. We are proud of you and all you have accomplished and, of course, it's great to be a Tennessee Vol. Go Vols.

ATLVOL55 writes:

Very nice article. good luck to both teams...Go Vols!

murrayvol writes:

Good piece. Glad to have each and every global volunteer. Play on.

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