Chris Woodruff’s pro career was nearly grounded before it ever took flight.
Woodruff had a sparkling resume before joining the ATP Tour. He won three gold balls as a junior. He captured the NCAA singles title in 1993. He was a two-time All-American.
But on the pro circuit, he was frustrated.
On the advice of the USTA, Woodruff accepted wild cards into upper-level pro tournaments. That’s like jumping straight to the Major Leagues out of college, rather than advancing through the minors.
“I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to conquer all levels,’’ Woodruff said.
Instead, the USTA asked Woodruff to conquer the cream of the crop before he was ready. The result: He lost matches and confidence.
He contemplated quitting.
“I was close to saying, ‘This isn’t my life,’ ’’ Woodruff said.
The USTA agreed to do what Woodruff should have done in the first place — play satellite events, then challengers. But the road to success still was rocky. He was winning more, but not at the level he aspired.
“My dad always told me, ‘Give it two years and if you don’t like it, pack it in,’ ’’ Woodruff said.
The breakthrough came in Philadelphia in 1996 when he won the qualifier at the U.S. Indoors. He got hot and advanced to the finals before losing to four-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier.
“That was probably my biggest win,’’ Woodruff said of the qualifier. “That jump-started my whole career.’’
It was a career that included two ATP Tour wins, two Davis Cup appearances, a No. 29 ranking, an appearance in each of the Grand Slam events and victories over seven No. 1-ranked players.
It was a career that landed him in the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. Woodruff, a Knoxville native, will be inducted along with nine others Thursday at the Knoxville Convention Center.
“It’s a great honor and it means a great deal,’’ said Woodruff, who is associate head coach of the University of Tennessee men’s tennis team.
Woodruff seemed destined to be a great tennis player. When he was about 7 years old, his father, Bob, noticed his son’s uncanny footwork and solid ground strokes.
Tommy Mozur, a former UT All-American and teaching pro at Knoxville Racquet Club, saw signs early that Woodruff would be special.
“Do you know what you’ve got here?’’ Mozur told Bob Woodruff. “He’s the best junior I’ve ever seen.’’
This junior had a natural two-handed backhand, aided by the fact he was a left-handed batter. He also had a fiery competitive spirit. He hated to lose. Bob said he quit playing monopoly with his son because Chris got so angry when he’d lose.
“He always had a thing for Park Place and Boardwalk,’’ Bob Woodruff said. “If he didn’t buy those two, he’d get very upset.’’
Chris Woodruff is known for his work ethic, but at an early age, he didn’t like to warm up for a match. Before one tournament, Bob took Chris early to the courts. They were filled with young kids practicing.
“He was shocked,’’ Bob said. “Once he saw that, I didn’t have any trouble getting him to warm up for a match.’’
No, Chris Woodruff wasn’t about to let anyone get an edge on him in competition.
Woodruff was a national level junior at an early age, but he didn’t get his first gold ball — a win at a national level USTA event — until he was 17. He won three.
While some people would display the gold balls prominently on a mantle, Woodruff isn’t quite sure where his are.
“Somewhere at my parents’ house,’’ he said.
Woodruff is grateful for his stellar career, but that’s not where his focus is.
“I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping juniors and the guys on our (UT) tennis team,’’ he said.
Woodruff, a coveted recruit out of Bearden High School, signed with Tennessee against the wishes of his parents. Bob, then a professor at UT, thought it would be best for him to be on his own and “learn some independence.’’
Chris wanted to stay close to home because he is close to his parents and he wanted to become a professional. Who better to guide you in that direction than Mike DePalmer Sr., who had churned out several pros?
“His track record at the time was second to none,’’ Woodruff said.
After his sophomore year at UT, Chris turned pro, against the wishes of his parents.
“We felt strongly that he needed a college education,’’ said Bob Woodruff, whose wife, Dottie, is a retired school teacher.
Chris Woodruff got a wild card into the 1993 U.S. Open on the basis of his NCAA tournament title, then turned pro after reaching Flushing Meadows. He had already enrolled in classes at UT, but after winning the NCAAs, he felt like there was nothing else to accomplish.
In 1997, Woodruff won the Canadian Open, beating a star-studded field. He won the final over French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten.
In December 1997, Woodruff suffered a knee injury from kicking a football, setting him back for more than a year.
“That jeopardized my career, there’s no doubt,’’ he said.
Woodruff bounced back in 1999 to win the Hall of Fame Tennis Championship in Newport, R.I., and capture ATP Comeback Player of the Year. He went from 1342 in the world to No. 38.
“That was special to me to get that award,’’ he said. “That’s pressure, to start the year in the 1000s with no money from endorsements.’’
In 2002, Woodruff retired, a few months after turning 29.
“Tennis is a global sport,’’ he said. “You have to travel. I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica. It takes you out of your comfort zone. You have to be tough. You have to want to travel. You have to like it. You have to endure the fact you’ll be away from your parents and family and the people that you care about.
“It’s a tough way to make a living. Travel is ultimately what broke me down.’’
Woodruff said he has one regret about his pro career.
“I would like to have had Mike DePalmer Jr. travel with me earlier,’’ said Woodruff, who spent one year on tour with Mike Jr. “That’s the one regret. He was a fantastic coach. Unfortunately, he was tied up with Boris Becker at the time (Woodruff turned pro).
“I learned a lot from him. I think we’d have been a great fit.’’