It’s not the easiest time to be a New England Patriots fan in Knoxville, Tennessee right now. Just ask Sadie Hammond.

Hammond, a Belgrade resident and die-hard Patriots fan, is surrounded by Denver Broncos fans, or more specifically, fans of Tennessee alum Peyton Manning in Knoxville. She’s still hearing about how Manning vanquished the Patriots in the AFC Championship game nearly two weeks ago. But as those who follow tennis know, she can hold her own in any serve and volley.

A freshman at Tennessee, Hammond isn’t backing down from any challengers, on campus or on a tennis court. She’s leading a youth movement in the Volunteers’ NCAA Division I tennis program and enjoying the start of her collegiate career.

“I love it so much,” she said. “It’s exceeded my expectations in every way.”

Hammond is already exceeding her own expectations in some ways, and has been since her collegiate debut last fall. She won her first singles match against 81st-ranked Gabriella Castaneda of Florida State in the Furman Fall Classic, then went on to win her next six singles matches.

“I got off to a good start in that first tournament at Furman and it just gave me the confidence to try and build off of that,” she said.

Hammond went on to post a 12-6 singles record while going 8-6 in doubles. After a strong tournament season, she lost her first singles match of the spring duals season on Jan. 23 at Wake Forest in three sets. She and doubles partner Eve Repic picked up a point in their match, however, and Hammond hasn’t lost a singles or doubles match since over the course of two doubleheaders against UT-Martin, Western Michigan, Lipscomb and Chattanooga.

“It’s a lot of work, but I still have a lot to improve,” she said. “It’s more mentally, things like working points and learning how to play against bigger players and just being smarter overall.”

“Every match is a hard match. There’s no guaranteed win. You have to fight for every point,” she added.

Hammond is one of six freshmen on the Tennessee roster. Co-coach Mike Patrick’s top three singles players are all freshmen, and he doesn’t hesitate to throw them up against the best Tennessee will face.

“The real pressure is going to come when they’re seniors and they’re expected to win,” he said.

Patrick, who coaches the team with his wife, Sonia Hahn-Patrick, said the focus for Hammond and all his freshmen is not on wins and losses at this point. With just four upper classmen on the roster, they’re laying the foundation for the Vols to become a factor in the toughest tennis conference in the nation, the Southeastern Conference.

“It’s a one-percent climb to get a little bit better each day,” he said. “There’s not much difference between Sadie and the best players in the country, so it’s a matter of making those little gains.”

Hammond said she’s seeing the difference those little gains can make in her losses more than her wins.

“In the matches I’ve lost, it’s really come down to just a few things,” she said.

Despite the growing pains, she still has lofty goals for herself this season, with aspirations to crack the nation’s top 20, lead the Vols to the SEC championship and, ultimately, play for a national championship.

“You have to shoot high,” Mike Patrick said.

Patrick said Hammond has become a more consistent and well-rounded player since arriving in Knoxville. She is less reliant on power and more capable of out-finessing what are typically bigger, stronger opponents.

But he added that the toughest test for Hammond and his freshmen nucleus lies ahead. The schedule gets stronger starting with their next match, Friday against No. 24 Georgia Tech. The SEC schedule, which opens March 4 against Mississippi State, includes four teams ranked in the top 10 — No. 1 Vanderbilt, No. 2 Georgia, No. 3 Florida and No. 9 Texas A&M.

“They’re going to learn how focused you have to be to play in this league,” he said. “The top level in the SEC is like playing pro events.”

Hammond, who has competed on the professional circuit since age 15 and entered her freshman year ranked No. 1,193 in the WTA singles rankings, is excited to test herself against the top-flight competition, but already knows overlooking anyone would be a mistake.

“I’m preparing myself, but I really am looking forward to playing the entire season,” she said.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

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Twitter: @RAWmaterial33