According to the roller-coaster database website, www.rcdb.com, four amusement parks in Mississippi have roller coasters, but over the weekend the Tennessee men's tennis team added a fifth with its ride through Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
The men opened the weekend by traveling to Starkville, Miss., to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Vols were heavily favored in this match-up but left defeated, starting the downward turn in their roller coaster tracks.
The match opened in fine fashion with a commanding win for the Vols in the first doubles pairing, but from that point, the team struggled to find any solid footing. In the end, the team was swept in every match but one, losing 6-1.
"We really all came out not ready to play," senior John-Patrick Smith said. "We had some bad energy and some bad focus, and it really showed."
This lack of focus did not go unnoticed by coach Sam Winterbotham.
"You know teams get beat, and as coaches I realize that it comes with the territory of being a coach," Winterbotham said. "But what I didn't like was the tone of the defeat. It was a gut check."
Following the loss, the Vols regrouped and traveled to Oxford to wrap up their tour of the Magnolia State. Instead of limping in and accepting defeat, the Vols came out strong and somewhat redeemed their weekend with a commanding victory over the Ole Miss Rebels.
The match, which was scheduled to be outdoors, was moved inside because gusts of wind topping out at 25 miles per hour. While the conditions outside were hostile to the Vols, the team came out unaffected and achieved a hard-fought victory.
The doubles opened up with two straight victories, highlighted by the pairing of Smith and Boris Conkic, who dominated their opponents 8-0.
"Our doubles were fantastic," Winterbotham said. "The tone they set really stamped our authority on the match, and we never relinquished that."
From the doubles on, it was obvious the Vols were on the upswing, as their momentum carried over into the singles.
Of the four singles matches that were completed, the Vols won three, with the fifth and sixth matches stopped halfway through because the outcome had already been decided. The first Vol to finish was sophomore Rhyne Williams, who won in straight sets. He was followed shortly by Tennys Sandgren and Smith.
"It was a great team effort today," Smith said. "We were all focused and determined to go out and win."
Smith's match was a three-set victory. Many calls did not go his way, but he was able to persevere and close out 6-2, 7-5, 6-1. To Smith, though, what stood out today was not the calls of the refs, but rather the performance of Sandgren, who is currently riding a team-high and career-best 16-match winning streak.
"He's been playing great," Smith said. "He's a rock for us at that No. 3 spot, and he's been even better in doubles. We just hope he keeps doing it."
The Vols left Ole Miss not only with a commanding 4-3 victory, but also with a sense of resiliency and determination in the face of adversity. And it is this aspect that might serve them better than a victory on Friday would have.
"We're not going to have that attitude again," Smith said. "We came closer as a team today. And I can assure you that's not going to happen again."
The Vols have two home matches coming up this week, the latter on April 10 against Florida on Senior Day.