Tennis fans came out in droves last week as the ATP Challenger Tour came to the Goodfriend Indoor Tennis Center on campus.
One of the most popular stops on the tour, the $50,000 Knoxville Challenger drew crowds of more than 4,000 as players ranked within the top 500 in the world competed in both singles and doubles competition. Among the title hopefuls in both categories were three former Vols — Rhyne Williams, Tennys Sandgren and John-Patrick Smith — who have since gone on to professional careers.
Williams was forced out with a shoulder injury before hitting a single stroke at the Challenger. The other former Tennessee All-Americans took the reins, however, and advanced deep in the competition to the delight of the home crowd.
Sandgren, ranked No. 243 in the world, defeated tough opposition in No. 105 Ryan Harrison and No. 96 Michael Russell en route to the singles semifinals on Saturday. In a back-and-forth contest, he lost to the tournament's top seed, Tim Smyczek, by a score of 7-5, 7-6 (3).
Despite falling behind 5-3 in the first set, Sandgren broke the world No. 82's serve and eventually evened the score at 5-5. Smyczek held his next serve and then broke his opponent to win the opening set 7-5.
Sandgren went ahead 2-0 in the second set thanks to an early break, but eventually lost an exasperating tiebreaker 7-3 to end his run at the tournament.
"He didn't give me an inch," Sandgren said after the match. "In the second set, I had multiple chances on multiple service games to go up another break, and he hung in there well. It just wasn't my day."
Nevertheless, Sandgren was still pleased with his overall performance and the opportunity to play in front of the same crowds that supported him throughout his two-year career at UT. He also reached the doubles semifinals with partner Austin Kracijek, where the pair lost to Peter Polansky and Carsten Ball.
"I love playing here, and I love having crowd support with the guys on the current team coming to watch my matches," Sandgren said." I feel like I've got a family here, and it's really fun to play in front of them."
Smyczek, who reached the third round of the U.S. Open this summer, defeated Polansky 6-4, 6-2 in the singles final on Sunday.
"I knew going in that I haven't played my best tennis this week, and Pete has," Smyczek said. "He's won 13 of his last 15 matches. So, I had to disrupt his rhythm a little bit."
The third highest-ranked American in professional tennis, Smyczek will enter the top 75 in the world when the updated rankings are calculated. The Knoxville victory also secured automatic entry into the Australian Open, the first of the Grand Slam tournaments.
The Milwaukee, Wis., native is finishing the 2013 season this week at the Champaign Challenger in Champaign, Ill. He shared his thoughts on playing Sandgren in the semifinal.
"You get some mixed emotions," Smyczek said. "There's no doubt that I wanted to win. I've had to play matches before where I was playing against the hometown favorite, so I knew what to expect going in.
"It was a relief to get through. Tennys is playing really well, and I think he is going to have a good Champaign and a good start to 2014."
JP Smith, one of only two players in the history of college tennis to be named an All-American in both singles and doubles for each of his four years at UT, won the doubles title alongside fellow Australian Samuel Groth.
The pair defeated Polansky/Ball 6-7 (6), 6-2, 10-7 (super tiebreaker) in an exhilarating final.
"We beat a great team today," Smith said. "They played really well today and last week."
The former Vol had the chance to serve for the match in the third set. On the first match point, he made no mistake and rifled a serve that Polansky could only return into the net.
Afterward, Smith was nostalgic about his time at UT and the opportunity to play as a professional on courts he won accolades on as a collegian.
"I don't really count this as a tournament," Smith said. "I feel like it's at home. It's almost like a training [session]. So, I've really enjoyed it."
"I'll always have Tennessee in my heart and Knoxville, as well," he added.
Over the past five years, the Knoxville Challenger has partnered with the Helen Ross McNabb Center to put on the tournament. This year more than $125,000 was raised to benefit the behavioral health service center.