Australian John-Patrick Smith has taken the road less travelled when it comes to pursuing a career in professional tennis, but after a run to the semifinals in Rhode Island last week, the University of Tennessee graduate and 2011 SEC Athlete of the Year looks well on his way to the top 100.
At the age of 26, JP Smith, in only his fourth year on tour, enjoyed a breakthrough tournament at the ATP Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport, making a stellar run to the semifinals.
Despite losing to eventual title winner Rajeev Ram – an opportunity Smith will rue given he beat the veteran American last time they played – he will no doubt be buoyed by his achievement.
After qualifying at Wimbledon this year, Smith continued his career-best form in Newport, defeating Bernard Tomic in the first round before taking care of rising American Jared Donaldson and Japanese Tatsuma Ito to reach the semifinal stage.
His opening affair against Tomic – the top-ranked Aussie and world No.25 – was marred in controversy with his compatriot entering the tournament late as a wildcard after being relieved of his Davis Cup duties following a startling outburst against Tennis Australia at Wimbledon.
The situation was further exacerbated when the governing body then sent media a daily schedule erroneously stating that Tomic was due to play in the “Hall of Shame” event in Newport. All puns aside, it was an allegedly innocent, yet grave mistake that fanned the flames of the ongoing saga with Tomic for many days.
None of that bothered Smith however, as he dismissed Tomic with little fanfare in straight sets, marking the biggest win of his career and his first ever at ATP Tour level.
While the big names in Australian tennis such as Tomic – who further added to his woes after his recent arrest in Miami – and the prodigiously talented yet emotionally erratic Nick Kyrgios continue to divide public opinion, Smith has been able to go about his business in relative anonymity, as he closes in on the top 100.
As Smith’s continues his progression, it’s interesting to look at the road he has travelled thus far – one which bears a stark contrast to that of Tomic and Kyrgios.
Smith, who hails from the regional centre of Townsville in Queensland, enrolled at the University of Tennessee on a tennis scholarship in 2007, choosing the American college system as his pathway to making it as a professional.
Seemingly out of favour these days as a recipe for tennis success, US colleges were once the birthplace of some of the world’s top players including John McEnroe and Todd Martin.
For Smith, it provided the perfect vehicle.
In his four years in Knoxville, Smith became one of the most prolific athletes in US college history and along the way completed a degree in economics and business administration.
His list of achievements is quite remarkable.
Smith reached No.1 in both singles and doubles in college rankings and during his tenure the Tennessee Volunteers enjoyed the best period in their tennis program’s history.
He was voted the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 2010 and 2011 and steered the “Vol’s” to conference titles in both those years – reaching the NCAA final in 2010.
He also became the second player ever (alongside Rick Leach) to earn singles and doubles ITA All-America honours in every year of his college career.
Off the court, major accomplishments also came his way. He earned an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship and was a three-time ITA Academic Scholar Athlete.
To cap it off, Smith was also voted SEC Athlete of the Year in 2011, the first ‘Vol’ to achieve this since quarterback Peyton Manning in 1998.
Upon receiving the award in front of over 100,000 people during a college football game, Smith remembers calming his nerves by saying to himself, “one step at a time”.
It seems this calculated approach applies to all of his endeavors and Smith is bringing this attitude to bear within the rigors of the professional tennis environment.
“Since graduating, I’ve basically started from scratch and tennis is my life again,” Smith said back in 2013.
In a contradistinction to Tomic and Kyrgios, Tennis Australia’s Todd Woodbridge admitted they hadn’t had a lot to do with Smith in the early years, which is understandable given the path he chose, but the wildcard entry he was granted into the 2013 Australian Open changed all that, serving as an entrée for Smith into Grand Slam tennis. While he lost in the opening round that year, the experience was invaluable and set the foundations for his gradual but consistent rise.
With many players not reaching their peak until later in life these days, experts such as Woodbridge are beginning to feel that the college environment is becoming an increasingly viable option.
Smith himself points to American John Isner – who is now entrenched in the world’s top 20 – as an example and also a great role model.
While Isner may represent the success that can achieved in professional tennis post-college, it’s actually been said that Smith’s solid left-handed game is more a throwback to the old school style of American college player than the power game of the 6’ 10” behemoth.
One thing is certain, however Smith’s tennis journey pans out, he has already set himself up for life after sport and a career on Wall Street might just be a consideration down the track.
For now though, his focus is firmly on tennis and perhaps earning a ranking high enough to provide him direct entry into the upcoming US Open.
This article was first published on The Roar.
Photo Credit: AP/File
Join our Community at The Good Men Project Sports Facebook Page!
And, if you like that, you might want a daily dose of Good Men Project awesomeness delivered straight to your inbox. Once a day or once a week for Good Men Project, or sign up for our once a week GMP Best of Sports email here.