NORCROSS, Ga. -- Only four players remained in the field after the first day of the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs.
Two of them are former Volunteers.
Playing on adjoining courts, Tennessee All-Americans Rhyne Williams and Tennys Sandgren finished within minutes of each other in their straight set quarterfinal wins to start the tournament Friday at Life Sport Tennis.
Williams defeated former UCLA All-American Daniel Kosakowski 6-1, 6-4, while Sandgren beat All-American Stanford star Bradley Klahn 6-3, 6-3.
In Saturday's semifinals, Williams will take on second-seeded Denis Kudla and Sandgren goes against top-seeded Tim Smyczek, the finalist at this year's Knoxville Challenger.
The winner of the three-day event earns the USTA's wild card into the main draw of the Australian Open and will be guaranteed at least $27,000 in prize money.
This week's tournament is nothing new to Williams, the 2011 NCAA singles semifinalist for the Vols. He has played this event the last two seasons, but this week brings a different perspective.
In past years, the eight-player draw has been stocked with grizzled veterans of the pro circuit trying to come back from injury and looking for a jump start into the first Grand Slam of the year. This time, the field is full of young up-and-coming players, five of whom played college tennis. Top-seeded Smycek is the "old man" of the group at 25 years old.
Instead of being one of the final players accepted into the draw and earning the first-day upsets as he has in the past, the Williams is seeded third and has the opportunity to play in the main draw of his second career Grand Slam event.
"The previous years, I had no expectations," said Williams, who is now No. 190 in the world rankings. "I was the underdog and I could swing away and really had no pressure. Not that I feel pressure this year. It's just that I'm one of the top three seeds. I'm happy to get the first win, and hopefully I can keep it going."
Williams experienced little trouble in his opening match. He said he was nervous to start, but once he held serve in the first game, he quickly took control against Kosakowski and jumped out to a 5-0 lead.
"Things always tighten up in the second set," Williams said. "Whether you like it or not, it's going to happen with these guys. Everyone's good. You've got to have close games and close sets."
Making his debut at the USTA's annual December event, Sandgren fought through a 15-minute service game against Klahn at 2-3 in the first set. Once he held serve, he immediately broke the former Stanford star and raced out to take the first set 6-3.
"That made me relax," Sandgren said. "That would have been a tough to lose a tight game on your serve like that. It would have been easy to go downhill fast."
Sandgren controlled the second set to move on to the semifinals.
Having grown up playing tennis with everyone in the field and training in Florida with others, there are no strangers across the net at this point for either Sandgren or Williams as the two find themselves just a pair of wins away from the main draw Down Under.
"It helps to have familiar people in your same shoes, but it's not fun to play each other though," Sandgren said. "It's kind of hard. Everyone here is friends, and that makes it difficult. You'd rather play somebody you didn't like.
"There's a good opportunity for all of us here two get a wild card, so we'll definitely put it aside and get after it."
Rhyne Williams was feeling good yesterday after an opening round win against Daniel Kosakowski at the 2012 Australian Open Wildcard Playoffs in Norcross, Georgia. The former University of Tennessee player noted that he has NEVER been to Australia before. He also mentioned his relief in not having to play Tennys Sandgren today, insisting that it’s never fun to play your best friend in the first round. Finally, he talked about the deep tennis legacy from which he hails.
Tennis East Coast @TennisEastCoast
@RhyneWilliams leaving the hotel en route to the semifinal match up against @deniskudla this afternoon. pic.twitter.com/4JfzND0n