VOL. 133 | NO. 40 | Friday, February 23, 2018
Link on UT
Woodruff Settles into Dream Job With Vols
Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Knoxville native Chris Woodruff was at a crossroads in life when he retired from professional tennis in 2002.
He had won a state doubles title at Bearden High School and, after an illustrious career in junior tennis, became a two-time All-American at Tennessee in 1992 and ’93, winning the NCAA singles championship as a sophomore before turning pro.
Woodruff traveled the world and ascended rankings, winning two ATP tour events, representing the United States in two Davis Cup ties and reaching No. 29 in the world in January of 2000 along the way.
Two years later, after having enough of the pro tour, Woodruff returned to Knoxville and re-enrolled at Tennessee.
Coach Chris Woodruff and Preston Touliatos discuss strategy during a match between UT and the UNC-Charlotte 49ers at Goodfriend Tennis Center in Knoxville. (Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics)
“I didn’t have a college degree, so I thought it would be important to go back and get my degree,” Woodruff says.
It was a career move leading Woodruff to his dream job as head coach at Tennessee.
While earning his degree in 2002, Woodruff was a volunteer assistant with the Vols. He was hired full time a year later and served as associate head coach under Sam Winterbotham from 2006 to 2017.
When Winterbotham was fired last May, Woodruff was promoted to head coach by former UT athletic director John Currie.
It was bittersweet for Woodruff to replace his boss and longtime friend, but that pain was eased when Winterbotham publicly endorsed Woodruff as the Vols’ new coach.
“Absolutely,” Woodruff, 45, says as he prepares the Vols (8-2) for Saturday’s double-header (11 a.m., 3 p.m. ET) home match against the University of Carolina Upstate. “We worked for so long beside each other. Not only did we work together, we became very close friends along the way.
“We shared a lot of highs and a lot of lows and a few in-betweens. Some of the greatest times of my life were working with (Winterbotham) here when we were doing well.”
Woodruff’s hiring was popular in the UT and Knoxville tennis communities. His blood runs Tennessee orange. Every coach Woodruff had during his tennis career had ties or played at Tennessee.
Woodruff’s parents, Robert and Dorothy, got him started in tennis in the early 1970s.
“My mom and dad came to Knoxville, and tennis was on the upstart here, and Knoxville Racquet Club was one of the first clubs around here in the early ’70s,” Woodruff recalls. “They were avid tennis fans and they would take me along. I would just watch them play, and by the time I turned 6 or 7 is when my dad introduced me to the game.
“It was something he didn’t force on me. One of the greatest things he ever did for me is he didn’t force me into the game, and let it come from me, and that’s proven to be an invaluable life lesson for me as a coach and me as a father introducing my (five) kids into sports, as well, not forcing them to do anything.”
Woodruff grew up in West Hills and attended West Hills Elementary, Bearden Middle School and Bearden High School.
His first teaching pro at Knoxville Racquet Club was the late Tommy Mozur, a Tennessee All-American in 1968 and ’70, but he also took lessons from Mike DePalmer, UT’s coach from 1981-94. Woodruff then worked with former Tennessee player Eric Voges, who became the longtime tennis director/coach at Chattanooga’s McCallie School.
There was little doubt where Woodruff would play college tennis when he graduated from Bearden.
“I kind of worked with Mike DePalmer,” Woodruff says. “He had an inside advantage without a doubt because I worked with him growing up. Being from Knoxville, he would teach some lessons at Cedar Bluff Racquet Club, and one of those lessons happened to be (with) me. Obviously, the (NCAA) rules were a lot different in the late ’80s than they are now with what you can and can’t do (as a college coach).”
In two seasons at Tennessee, Woodruff posted an 81-16 record with 45 victories in the 1993 season. His career singles winning percentage of .835 is second all-time at Tennessee, and he’s the only UT player to win an NCAA singles championship.
Woodruff was the ITA rookie of the Year in 1992 and won the USTA Sportsmanship Award in 1993 when he made a remarkable run in the NCAA singles tournament in Athens, Georgia.
Woodruff recalls winning his opening match in two tight sets, then coasting into the semifinals, including a 6-0, 6-0 quarterfinal victory. He then blew a match point and a one-set, 5-2 lead in the semifinals – Woodruff can’t recall the opponent’s name – before winning the third set 6-2.
His semifinal win set up an NCAA championship match against Georgia’s Wade McGuire on the Bulldogs’ home courts, historically one of the most raucous venues in college tennis.
Woodruff, who had lost to McGuire two weeks earlier in the SEC tournament, also in Athens, claimed the NCAA title with a 6-3, 6-1 win.
“I beat a Georgia Bulldog, in Georgia,” Woodruff recounts. “Crazy. It was just the same (pro-Georgia crowd). It was very hard to play a Georgia guy in Athens. Chaos. I won pretty handily, and they didn’t have a lot to cheer about. There really wasn’t much noise being made.”
Soon after, Woodruff turned pro.
“The biggest thing for me was I came to the realization that I thought I had maxed my ability to improve in college,” Woodruff adds. “Once I came to that conclusion, it seemed like the right thing to do.”
DePalmer was Woodruff’s coach at the start of his pro career – which like teaching private lessons, would not be allowed by a college coach these days by the NCAA.
Woodruff also was coached by then-Tennessee assistant coach Scott Perelman, who eventually left UT and became Woodruff’s full-time traveling coach until 1999. He also worked some with former UT player and Knoxville native Carlos Garcia and then was coached by former UT player and touring pro Mike DePalmer Jr. during the later stages of his career.
Two of his best memories as a pro were playing in the Davis Cup for the United States and winning the 1997 Canadian Open, an ATP Masters 1000 Series event.
During the tournament, Woodruff posted victories over Goran Ivanisevic, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and in the final, beat Gustavo Kuerten, who had won the French Open earlier in the year. Kafelnikov won the 1996 French Open and the 1999 Australian Open and had four Grand Slam doubles titles. Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2005.
“Really, it was just a blur,” Woodruff recounts of his run to the Canadian Open title. “You hear athletes talk about, ‘It was a blur and you don’t remember what was going on,’ and I really don’t because some of those guys had won Grand Slams and been No. 1 in the world, and a lot of them I watched on TV because they were playing in tournaments I couldn’t get in. So, I knew every one of those people, but it was just a big blur in Montreal.”
Woodruff posted victories against seven former No. 1 players in the world during his career – Kafelnikov, Kuerten, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Marcelo Rios, Carlos Moya, and Thomas Muster – but the world travel lost its luster after nine years.
“I could have kept going,” Woodruff acknowledges. “I was still ranked pretty high, maybe 130 in the world, which is nothing to sneeze at, but I just lost interest. I still loved to play. I just didn’t like the travel. I didn’t like the competition. Practicing got to be more fun than the actual packing the bag to play the events. I just didn’t enjoy it.”
So, Woodruff went back to school and started as a volunteer coach at Tennessee under head coach Michael Fancutt.
When Fancutt resigned in 2004, his assistant, Chris Mahony, took over as acting head coach, and Mahony become head coach in 2005, hired by then-athletic director Mike Hamilton.
Mahony resigned Sept 12, 2006, and Hamilton hired Winterbotham about a month later with Woodruff promoted to associate head coach.
“It sounded good at the time,” Woodruff says. “I didn’t know that I wanted to be a head coach or stay in the business. I hadn’t been in it that long.”
Winterbotham was Colorado’s head coach from 2002 until 2006, when the program was cut, and he and Woodruff began rebuilding Tennessee back to national prominence.
The Vols finished in the top 10 every year from 2008-11 and won back-to-back SEC regular-season titles in 2010 and ’11. They won the SEC tournament in 2010 and reached finals of the NCAA team tournament in 2010 led by John-Patrick Smith, Rhyne Williams and Tennys Sandgren. In 2011, Tennessee reached No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time since 1990.
After the 2013 season, when the Vols climbed to No. 5 nationally and advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals, a slide in the program began. They reached the NCAA’s round-of-16 in 2014, and the next year went 14-13, 5-7 in the SEC (eighth). They lost in the second round of the NCAA.
The next two seasons, Tennessee was 23-31 overall and 3-21 in the SEC, including a 0-12 SEC record in 2016.
“Sam and I both had a feeling that we were living on borrowed time,” Woodruff recalls.
“I started to look elsewhere and actually wasn’t sure if I was going to come back, even if (Winterbotham) came back. I had started to look elsewhere, and I told him I had a couple of opportunities.
“He had one more year left on his contract, so he knew the way we were rolling wasn’t going to cut it. He and I both thought we were in trouble with the new AD coming in (Currie replacing Dave Hart).”
Woodruff was named interim head coach when Winterbotham was fired and named head coach about two weeks later.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Woodruff explains. “I’d had a lot of years under my belt, so if I was going to be the head coach, I was certainly prepared and ready to step into this.”
Woodruff retained volunteer assistant coach Ben Testerman, a Knoxville native and former high-level ATP Tour player, and hired James McKie as assistant coach.
McKie spent the last two years as Tulane’s assistant coach and helped the Green Wave reach No. 20 in the nation last season, the program’s highest ranking since 2005.
“We didn’t want to have a whole bunch of change,” Woodruff says. “We lost the head coach, I was the assistant, and we bring in an assistant none of these guys have ever heard of. Keeping Ben provided some balance because the guys returning knew Ben.
Woodruff and his staff are setting the foundation with a 2017 roster comprised of one senior, two juniors, two sophomores, and three freshmen.
Junior Timo Stodder of Berlin, Germany, plays No. 1 singles. The 2017 All-SEC player was ranked No. 18 when Tennessee upset No. 20 Duke, 4-1, on Feb. 9.
With Stodder the clear No. 1, the rest of the Vols are flexible in the lineup.
“We have a pretty legitimate No. 1 and really after that, it’s anybody’s ballgame, so really our strength lies in our depth,” Woodruff adds.
“We have eight legitimate players on this team, and everybody has played this year in dual matches, either singles or doubles, and that will continue to be the case because as the year wears on, inevitably somebody is going to get injured or need to take some time off for some reason.”
There isn’t much down time for Woodruff in his new role at Tennessee or with his home life. His wife, Jennifer (Arndt) Williams, is a stay-at-home mom.
They met at a university function when Chris was a UT tennis assistant and Jennifer was an assistant swimming coach at Tennessee.
“I absolutely love it, being named the head coach here at the school I played for,” Woodruff adds.
“I met with Coach (Phillip) Fulmer (UT’s new athletic director and former football coach) this morning, and he and I both, it’s almost like our calling to represent this university.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.