Coach Sam Winterbotham after Tennessee's dramatic 4-3 win over Clemson in NCAA tennis.
In this era of diminished expectations, Tennessee fans long for a performance by somebody in orange they can stand up and cheer about.
Such performances still happen. The rub is that unless they happen in Neyland Stadium or Thompson-Boling Arena, not many people see them.
There was such a performance Saturday. It was witnessed by only a couple hundred pairs of eyes, nearly all of whom belong to the tennis community.
Football and basketball also drive the passion train. I don’t know that Brandon Fickey’s commitment was mentioned on any message boards a couple of years back, even though he was a blue-chip recruit from right here in Knoxville.
Wrong sport. Tennis.
As for Saturday, too bad Fickey wasn’t doing his thing in Neyland in front of 90,000. That would have been something.
Here’s the scene:
The No. 6 Vols were on the verge of being upset by Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tennis tournament.
After more than four hours, a pair of singles matches ended almost simultaneously, knotting the score at 3-3.
At the same time, Fickey lost a tiebreaker to Clemson’s Gerardo Meza, forcing a third set to decide the match.
Every eye in the Goodfriend Tennis Center turned to court three. The Clemson players and UT players ritually stood in line 60 feet away.
Here’s the backstory:
Saturday was only Fickey’s second day back after a layoff of more than a month to rest a shoulder injury. He played Friday in the NCAA opener and was trailing when the Vols clinched the 4-0 victory over South Carolina State.
Fickey, a sophomore that attended Webb School, had not won a singles match since way back on Feb. 17. Plagued by the shoulder, he went 0-7 in SEC play before coach Sam Winterbotham shut him down.
“It’s tough,’’ Fickey, a four-time state champion at Webb, said later, “you kind of forget how to win.’’
To the Vols’ relief, he remembered Saturday. But not before he heightened the tension by losing the first two games to Meza.
Fickey fought back, urged on by the crowd and his teammates. Both coaches would later call it a classic tennis match.
When Fickey broke Meza’s serve to clinch the victory at 6-4, the Vols sprinted to embrace him.
“I just love the guy,’’ said teammate Hunter Reese. “The guy’s had a tough year. He hasn’t won in a long time. To come out in this situation, it’s just an unbelievable effort.’’
Winterbotham admitted it was tough keeping his British stiff upper lip from
quivering as he watched Fickey fight for the team’s postseason life.
“He’s Tennessee tough,’’ Winterbotham said. “I can’t say any more. It described him the best.’’
Fickey has worked hard to be mentally tough as well. He realized what the moment meant. Growing up in Knoxville, he’d been coming to UT’s NCAA matches as long as he could remember.
“(Assistant) Coach (Chris) Woodruff told me to do it for Knoxville,’’ Fickey said. “And that’s what I did.
“I did it for Knoxville, I did it for the team and I did it for Tennessee.’’
It was something to see. You should have been there.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.