This was a good month to be the guy they call "Rhyno."
Just 21, Rhyne Williams started the month with a surprising win in the Dallas Challenger, good for nearly $15,000 and 100 points in the rankings. He followed that up this past Monday with his first ATP-level victory, over former two-time NCAA singles champion Steve Johnson. It happened in Memphis, not far to the west from his birthplace, residence and scene of many college triumphs at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
"It's definitely been a goal of mine playing on tour," Williams said Tuesday. "This is just one more step. I'm getting closer. My body's breaking down a bit here, but maybe I can run on momentum for a few more days."
Williams comes from a tennis-playing family. His mother, Michelle, was an All-American at UT and father Bob was All-ACC at Duke. Sisters Jennifer and Caitlyn both played junior tennis; Caitlyn is on the UT roster. He is coached by his cousin, Christopher Williams. His idol growing up was Roger Federer, and believe it or not, his favorite surface is clay.
Williams was 0-3 in previous ATP matches, having qualified into the 2012 events at Indian Wells and the U.S. Open and received a wild card into this year's Australian Open. On Thursday in Memphis, he was to play the winner of the Bjorn Phau-Alexandr Dolgopolov match in the second round.
Williams is currently ranked No. 159, but is expected to rise to around No. 134 when next week's ATP World Tour rankings are released. Based on last year's performance, he's hoping for a wild card in Indian Wells and will try to qualify in Miami. ESPN.com caught up with Williams after an off-day hit after his breakthrough victory.
ESPN.com: You had to qualify just to get into the Dallas Challenger earlier this month. How did it feel to win your first professional tournament?
: That was an incredible tournament for me. I was not expecting to win. I've been working hard on my physical conditioning, but I played some incredible tennis that week. I beat some veterans, Rajeev Ram, Frank Dancevic, Robby Ginepri in the final. Couldn't be happier with my performance.
ESPN.com: You got to the NCAA singles final for the University of Tennessee in 2011, then turned pro. What made you think you were ready?
I went to school knowing that one day I wanted to play professional tennis. I pretty much had accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish in college. I was ranked No. 1 and No. 2. I wanted a team victory and we lost in the finals. I figured it was just time. I felt like I was mature enough and physically ready to make the next step. To be honest, I had a ton of fun off the court and needed to focus on my tennis goals.
ESPN.com: You won the USTA qualifier into the main draw at the 2013 Australian Open, then took the first two sets against No. 28-ranked Florian Mayer, but lost 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 6-7 (12), 1-6. What happened in the last three sets of that match?
[Sigh]. I started off on fire, serving incredibly. Maybe he underestimated me a little bit -- then he woke up, just in time. In the fourth set, I had a few match points on his serve. I couldn't quite decide what I wanted to do on those match points. The tiebreaker was a dogfight and it was 100 degrees out there. It was just a heartbreaker. I couldn't close it out. Credit to him. He came up with the goods.
ESPN.com: What did that match teach you about what the specific areas are in which you need to improve?
I learned that on the big points, the top guys don't go away. They don't give you the loose errors some other guys do. You have to go after them with no fear. To be honest, I was afraid I was going to miss. I went too far back in the court. I didn't miss, but it was enough to give him the advantage. He was the aggressor on big points -- that's why he won.
ESPN.com: You've already had the biggest rankings jump -- from No. 192 to a projected No. 134 -- of any American in the top 200 over the first seven weeks of the season. What are your goals for 2013 and beyond?
I need to improve my net game, close off points more quickly. I need to come in behind my serve and forehand. My coach, Christopher Williams, and I are going to work on that in the coming weeks. I think I can do it; I have the hands and the touch. I feel like it's something I can implement in my game. Short term, I want to push for the top 100. Long term, I want to be in the main draw of the Grand Slams -- that's where the damage is done. I have a long way to go, but I feel like it's doable.