UT goes distance for talent

There sat Sam Winterbotham in a tennis stadium outside Barcelona, Spain, watching a blue-chip prospect in a tournament.

It had been a long trip for the University of Tennessee men's coach and NCAA rules prohibited him from even talking to the recruit.

The best he could hope for was that his orange UT attire would be noticed in the stands.

"I'm there,'' said Winterbotham, "just to say, 'Hey, this is Tennessee. We really want you to come to our school.' ''

The recruit?

Rhyne Williams of Knoxville, Tenn.

If Derek Dooley, Pat Summitt or Cuonzo Martin think they've got the toughest recruiting gig, maybe they ought to try tennis for a year.

Winterbotham and associated head coach Chris Woodruff have assembled and developed a team that ranks No. 2 in the nation as it opens SEC tournament play against Ole Miss today at Florida.

It's no fluke. The Vols were NCAA tournament runners-up in 2010 and have won or shared back-to-back SEC regular-season titles.

Getting there is a challenging puzzle.

Like the higher-profile sports, tennis has the same shark tank of elite programs fighting for the elite pool of recruits.

And the blue-chippers can break your heart by going pro. Where basketball worries about one-and-dones, tennis even worries about none-and-dones.

That's what happened with Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India, who redshirted at UT last year while establishing his eligibility then turned pro without serving a single ace for the Vols .

Unlike the revenue sports, scholarships are not a level playing field. Men's tennis has 4.5 scholarships to divide among eight or more athletes.

"The guy may love your school and you be his number one choice,'' said Winterbotham, "but if you don't have the ability to give him the scholarship he needs, then he isn't coming.''

Not even No. 3-ranked Williams or 2010 SEC player of the year John-Patrick Smith get a full ride.

And then there's the travel. Return your seat and tray table to an upright and locked position.

UT football has successfully recruited coast to coast. Tennis, however, doesn't stop at either coast.

Five of UT's top seven players are international, which is common in college tennis.

Of the top 20 players in this week's Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings, nine are international. In the SEC, Ole Miss and Auburn each field rosters with only one American.

Winterbotham himself was an international recruit, coming from England to Oklahoma Christian.

He's winding up his fifth season as UT's coach. The Vols are 26-1 against SEC foes over the past two seasons.

Winterbotham went to Serbia to sign Boris Conkic and to England to recruit Ed Jones of Wales. He caught a mileage break with Smith, an Australian, recruiting him at a juniors event in England.

Still, while courting Smith in England, Winterbotham had to rush back to Knoxville to host Conkic and Matteo Fago, an Italian, on a campus visit, then jet back to close the deal with Smith.

Even with senior Smith's imminent departure, freshman Jarryd Chaplin will maintain the Australian link. The Vols have had at least one Aussie since 1988.

"I was prepared to go to Australia,'' Winterbotham said, "but Jarryd committed on the phone before I could come visit and show him the love.''

But UT had to be willing to show a lot of love for its two Tennessee-grown stars, sophomores Williams and Tennys Sandgren. Both were at the top of the 2010 recruiting class and played international schedules.

The first objective remains to recruit the best Americans, which, ironically, can require more time and effort.

"Face time with them is very important,'' Winterbotham said, "because they're familiar with the process and they're very open.''

Woodruff's presence helps especially with the Americans. The 1993 NCAA singles champion and 2000 U.S. Davis Cup player from Knoxville was ranked as high as No. 12 in his pro career.

Still, competing against the long-term powers for top Americans is frustrating.

"We're in a position now where we can at least be in the conversation,'' Winterbotham said.

UT's conversation with Williams and Gallatin's Sandgren included the fact that each had strong family ties to the program.

Brandon Fickey, a five-star recruit from Knoxville's Webb School, has signed for 2011 but UT has to find ways to land blue-chip Americans with no Big Orange link.

That's why getting Hunter Reese of Kennesaw, Ga., was a coup.

Reese, ranked No. 11 in the Class of 2011, is the first Vol from the Peach State since 1993. If powerhouse Georgia goes after an in-state recruit, the Bulldogs usually get him.

"They wanted him at Georgia,'' Winterbotham said. "This was a major victory.''

Before the 2011 signing class - already ranked No. 5 - is done, Winterbotham expects at least one more victory.

With seniors Smith, Conkic and Fago departing and both Williams and Sandgren weighing options to turn pro, recruiting is at a critical juncture.

"We're very lucky that we've got a whole basketful of very talented guys,'' Winterbotham said. "But I am a very competitive person and we'll be competitive to replace them when it's time for them to leave.

"Regardless, we're going to be competitive.''

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 1

ODA751 writes:

Coaches Winterbotham and Woodruff are getting the job done.... and then some. Tennessee is an elite program in tennis. Great job, keep up the hard work, and Go Vols!

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