Vols vs New Mexico
Pat Harper celebrates after scoring during the Men's Tennis opening game against New Mexico, in the Goodfriend Tennis Center on January 18, 2020.

The current No. 2 Tennessee men’s tennis team stood at the No. 1 spot in the nation for three consecutive weeks before a loss to Ohio State pushed them down a spot. Despite the loss, the Vols still face a variety of expectations as the ITA indoor season winds down and the NCAA season dawns.

Head coach Chris Woodruff, however, is teaching his team to not focus on rankings and instead focus on the product. Throughout the course of the young season, Woodruff has preached about trusting the process.

“It’s really just one day at a time, nothing’s really changed,” Woodruff said. “We approach the day to day grind the same, we just try to get a little bit better each day. We’ve been fortunate, as of late especially, to win a couple of 4-3 matches, but it’s not much — just hard work. There is no secret success. We have some good players, but mainly, we just try hard.”

Woodruff has built this team from the ground up, and his players have bought into his process. The Vols were 13-14 the season before Woodruff was promoted to head coach, and they were 21-9 in his first season, steadily improving since.

After winning the SEC Championship last spring, the expectations surrounding Tennessee tennis have only increased. Woodruff trusts in the leadership from the No. 21 graduate student Adam Walton to push his process forward.

“It’s only early in the season, and there is a long way to go,” Walton said. “It’s how we finish, not really how we start, but it is still cool to see that we were No. 1 in the country.”

Walton has been a Vol since Woodruff took over, and he will leave Knoxville after this season as one of the most accomplished Vol tennis players of all time. In the fall season, Walton became the 11th Vol to reach 100 singles wins and is currently 15 wins away from being the sixth Vol to have 100 wins in singles and doubles.

Walton also won the National Championship in doubles last year with his partner Pat Harper. The duo provides leadership and experience for the younger players.

“Pat has a lot of fire and is more vocal and outward with his emotions, and Adam is more introspective within his thoughts,” Woodruff said of the pair. “It’s that yin and yang of uptight and laid back.”

The presence of leadership has proved effective for players like sophomore Johannus Monday and freshman Shunsuke Mitsui.

Monday, No. 10, is the Vols highest ranked singles player and is 3-0 against top-10 opponents.

“He has a lot of things that you like in an athlete,” Woodruff said. “He’s tall, left handed, and the thing that really helps is he moves well. He’s learning to be a good competitor, and he listens. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Monday is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year as well as an ITA Singles All-American. He has built on that success this season with a 13-3 record in the fall and spring.

Woodruff said that Monday did not receive many offers heading into college, but the Vols decided to give him a shot.

“I really do appreciate it, he took a big chance on me,” Monday said. “Not many of the big schools wanted me at the time, so to get an offer to go here considering what he’s achieved in the game was a big pleasure for me and there was no debate, it was an easy choice.”

Another budding star is No. 114 Mitsui. Despite his young age, he plays like a seasoned vet. Mitsui holds a 6-0 singles record in the dual season and is 4-2 in doubles. In total, he is 15-4 in singles and 20-3 in doubles during his freshman campaign. His combination of speed and recognition makes him a force in any match he plays.

Though the Vols boast an extremely talented roster, Woodruff leaves expectations to those outside of the program.

“We don’t have any expectations on trying to win it all and doing this and that,” Woodruff said. “I have been doing this a long time and from my playing background you are what you are and all you can do is just get better day by day. That’s a really hard message to push, but I think everyone is on board with it.”

Tennessee is looking to keep its composure heading into the weekend of Feb. 18-21. The Vols will travel to Seattle, Washington, for the ITA Indoor National Championships to take an important step in Woodruff’s process.

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