KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee's John-Patrick Smith reached the finals of the NCAA singles tennis tournament as a freshman in 2008. Volunteers coach Sam Winterbotham wasn't sure if he'd stick around Knoxville much longer.
"I'm normally telling those guys, 'Maybe you want to turn pro,'" Winterbotham said. "I actually sat down and had that conversation with him, and he looked at me like I was crazy because he came here for four years. He had a plan, and his plan was to get a degree."
The Townsville, Australia, native known to his teammates as J.P. stuck to the plan, earning his economics degree last week. In the mean time, he's managed to dominate Southeastern Conference play while becoming only the second collegiate tennis player to be named all-American for four years in both singles and doubles play.
The NCAA title is the one thing to elude the 22-year-old Smith in his four years in Knoxville, and he's making one final run at the NCAA singles, doubles and team titles this month before he'll consider his coach's earlier advice about turning pro.
"I've enjoyed every moment here and have had a great time. I wouldn't change anything for the world," Smith said. "Right now, it's kind of sad finishing up, but on the bright side, we haven't finished anything yet. We've got the NCAAs left and individuals, so there's still a lot of tennis left in the month of May."
No. 3 Tennessee is back in the NCAA team tournament round of 16 after 4-0 sweeps of Radford and Virginia Tech in the first two rounds and will face No. 14 California in Palo Alto, Calif., on Thursday. The Vols lost to Southern California in the NCAA championship match a season ago 4-2 with Smith losing to the Trojans' Robert Farah in the No. 1 singles match.
It's not the first time Smith has come close to winning the NCAA title. Besides the 2008 singles championship appearance, he played in both the 2009 and 2010 doubles title matches with former partner Davey Sandgren, losing both.
"We've worked so hard these last couple of weeks. We're just trying to pull the pieces together and hopefully we can get a good win," Smith said. "I know we've all learned so much from that match a year ago. I know if put in that situation again that we've definitely won enough to build upon it and go one step further."
If the team title escapes Smith and the Vols again, he's still got another shot at a singles or doubles crown during when tournaments are held May 25-30 in Stanford, Calif. Smith earned an at-large bid to the NCAA singles tournament, and he and his current partner, fellow senior Boris Conkic, are the top-seeded pair in the doubles tournament.
Smith and Conkic complement each well on the court and reached the ITA's No. 1 ranking on March 1 after a 9-0 start. They won their first doubles match together after a chance pairing in the ITA All-American Championships on Oct. 11, 2009, even though their only practice as a pair had involved briefly hitting the ball around before the match.
"He's such a good player both in singles and doubles," said Conkic, a native of Novi Sad, Serbia. "It's just easy to play with him. As soon as we started playing together, we sort of knew who was going to do what and who was going to get the ball. I can say it was easy from the beginning."
Winterbotham is not surprised by Smith's success either.
"Really, his talents lie in the fact that he comes every day and he maximizes every practice," Winterbotham said. "Every resource that we have on this campus, whether it be tutors, whether it be masseuses or strength coaches— he's been in there. They all know him and they know when he comes in there, he means business. He means, 'How can this help me get better?'"
The evidence of Smith's hard work is in the record books.
With his victories on Friday and Saturday, Smith became Tennessee's all-time career leader in combined wins with 143 singles victories and 144 doubles wins.
He joins former Georgia player John Isner as the only players to earn back-to-back SEC player of the year honors and Southern Cal's Rick Leach as the only collegiate players to earn all-American honors in singles and doubles for four straight years.
If he continues to mentioned with Isner and Leach, Smith has a future as a pro.
Isner has been ranked as high as 18th in the world in singles and is currently 39th; Leach reached the No. 1 ranking in doubles and won five Grand Slam doubles titles between 1988-2000; and Somdev Devvarman, the player who defeated Smith in the 2008 NCAA singles championship, is currently ranked 66th in the world in singles.
"I have no doubt that J.P. can become a professional tennis player," Winterbotham said. "I think he's one of the best doubles players ever in college, and college is strewn with great college doubles players."
But despite all the talk from his coach, Smith still isn't thinking about a professional career just yet.
"I really want to just focus on the NCAAs right now," he said. "Obviously I'm going to have to go through a few things after college — I mean, I've got to move out of here. It's going to be different. The thing about college tennis is you have this base here, and you come back to it every week. On the road, you're gone three months at a time and you might get a couple months at home a year so personality wise it's really got to suit you."