The University of Tennessee's most competitive sports program -- the program with the best chance of bringing
national championship hardware back to Knoxville -- is the men's tennis team. With the runner-up trophy from last year's NCAA tournament having barely had enough time to collect dust, Head Coach Sam Winterbotham and Associate Head Coach Chris Woodruff have their racquet-wielding, fuzzy-ball-bouncing charges poised to make another deep run in the tournament.
The brackets were in fact released yesterday evening, and somebody appears to be of the opinion that only two teams (UVA and USC) have a better chance of claiming this year's national championship than do our beloved Volunteers.
We here at Rocky Top Talk do not feel it prudent to allow our newest national powerhouse to continue flying under the proverbial radar. Me, well I just happen to be a big fan of the game of tennis, and thought it would be interesting to keep an eye on this team, because, you never know, we might just win the thing.
First things first, I think we need some context. A little perspective. College tennis is arguably not the most fervently followed sport in these our United States, and so, before we proceed further, methinks a bird's-eye overview of collegiate tennis generally might be helpful to a lot of folks who aren't necessarily intimately familiar with the game. To this end, here are answers to some frequently asked questions:
1. I'm not terribly familiar with team tennis. How are each of the matches scored?
There are four singles slots and three doubles slots for each match. So our best singles player, in theory, will be playing against the opponent's best singles player. Our second best singles player will play against the opponent's second best singles player. Our best doubles team will play the opponent's best doubles team. You get the idea. Each of these matches is worth a single point. 7 is an odd number, and so one team will have more points than the other team after all the matches are played. That team is the winner. They advance to the next round.
2. What schools are traditional tennis powers?
Stanford is THE traditional tennis juggernaut. For three decades strong, the Cardinal had a dynasty with the largest capital D that has ever existed. I had no idea. I was blown away. Check it out, they freaking dominated the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The only other institution of higher learning that can legitimately tag themselves with the label of traditional tennis power is the University of Georgia. The Bulldogs are a distant second to Stanford in this category, but to their credit, they have recently done a better job than has Stanford of maintaining this lofty status, winning the whole shebang in 1999, 2001, 2007, and 2008.
3. I'm sorry, you'll have to forgive that last question. I'm not sure why I used the word "traditional." I must have temporarily forgotten how much pleasure I derive every Fall when I watch Notre Dame play football on national television and I again get to witness how dreadfully bad they are. How about you give me a more recent lowdown of the top programs?
How about we start with 2001, when the Volunteers lost in the NCAA finals to the Georgia Bulldogs. In the ensuing 10-year window, Georgia probably has the strongest argument for "best program." Stanford dropped off quite a bit from its level of success in previous decades. The Pac-10 has remained strong, though, with USC assuming the role of conference juggernaut. Meanwhile, Tennessee has begun to establish themselves as an elite program.
What remains the same when you look at either (a) recent history, or (b) way-back-when history, is that the landscape of college tennis can be broken down into three categories: (1) The SEC, (2) The Pac-10, and (3) Other.
4. Which conference is the strongest this year?
The SEC is the strongest conference this year. And this isn't really even that arguable with four SEC teams in the top ten. This is good news for Tennessee. The only top team this year that we haven't played is USC, and we played them last year in the finals, so we'll know something about them when we potentially meet them in the semifinals. And hopefully this will aid us in giving them their proper whuppins this time around.
5. Where are the matches played?
If you check out the draw, how it works is that there are 16 teams that are seeded. So each of these seeded teams, for the first two rounds, is in what you might call a "pod" with three unseeded teams. These first two rounds are played at the location of the seeded team. For example, Tennessee plays Radford in the first round in Knoxville. If they win that match, they play the winner of Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt...again, in Knoxville. After these first two rounds, the tournament moves to Stanford. It isn't played at Stanford every year. Rather, it rotates between a couple facilities. Not sure who decided what venues the tournament would rotate between. It is likely based on seating capacity, which -- not surprisingly -- would correlate with past success of the program.
6. But, hold on, that isn't fair. Some schools have home court advantage over the rest of the competition.
I'm not overly concerned here. I'm pretty sure home court advantage is meaningless in tennis (with Davis Cup maybe just maybe being an exception). Ask Andy Murray if you don't believe me. Or maybe Tim Henman.
7. Who is the greatest tennis player of all time?
The Great Great Rafa Nadal (TGGRN) is quite obviously the greatest tennis player of all time. Next!
8. Hold on...that wasn't my question. You just put that in there yourself. And what do you mean "quite obviously?" What are you, some Rafa fan with an agenda? Let me guess, you probably own at least two "Vamos Rafa" t-shirts, don't you?
Okay, so that's all the time we have for today's segment, ladies and gentlemen. The singles and doubles draws will be unveiled this evening. You can check that out here. Once both draws are set, we'll begin the process of breaking them down like our name was Mariah Carey, and assessing the chances of the Vols.