NORCROSS, Ga. -- Facing the end of his match, former Vol Rhyne Williams got the spark he needed for a late surge into the finals of USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoff.
Denis Kudla served for the match in the second set but Williams regained momentum with some timely forehand winners and ran away in the third for a 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-1 victory.
Williams will face top-seeded Tim Smyczek for a wild card into the main draw of the Australian Open in January. Smyczek got to the finals by beating former Vol Tennys Sandgren 6-2, 6-2.
The second-seeded Kudla had Williams in trouble by taking advantage of Williams' unforced errors and up-and-down play through much of the first two sets. Kudla broke Williams' serve midway through the second set and had a chance to serve out the match up 5-3.
At that point, Williams found consistent rhythm on his forehand, one of his greatest weapons on court. He got ahead on Kudla's service game and got the break on a forehand winner rifled out of reach.
"It really started clicking at the right time with my back against the wall and him serving for the match," Williams said. "I hit a few really big forehands, and thankfully, it came around. The first set and a half, I felt a little tentative on the shot."
The crowd, nonpartisan for the most part but wanting a third set, cheered Williams through his final service games and the following tiebreaker, which he won 7-4.
After more than two hours of physical, long points, Williams looked the fresher of both players in the third set. After sprinting up to save break point with a near-impossible shoelace volley that slipped just over the net cross court for a winner at 1-1, Williams controlled the match from there, winning the last five games to advance.
Fitness has been Williams' main interest during the month-long tennis offseason, spending more hours in the weight room and the track than on the courts. He was not sure how his training the last few weeks would affect his play in the tournament. So far, so good.
"This offseason has been brutal, really," Williams said. "I haven't played that much tennis, to be honest. I've been mainly focusing on the fitness aspect. I feel pretty good out there.
"I thought I would be a little tired coming into this tournament but after today, it was a really physical match, but I don't really hurt. It's already paying off."
Now Williams turns his attention to Smyczek, who was one of the top players at the end of the year on the USTA Pro Circuit, reaching the semifinals of the Knoxville Challenger and winning the season-finale Champaign Challenger in Illinois. In both tournaments, he defeated Williams along the way, so the Vol hopes for a change of fortune in Sunday's meeting.
"He got me both times," Williams said. "He's a great player and has been playing incredible at the end of the year."
Rhyne Williams won the fifth annual USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs on Sunday evening in Atlanta, GA. Williams earned a place in the main draw of the upcoming season’s first Grand Slam by defeating Tim Smyczek 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.
In Saturday’s semifinals, Williams found himself trailing second-seeded Denis Kudla by a set and 5-3 in the second—all but out of the tournament. Little more than 24 hours later, Williams is suddenly primed and ready for what will be either the biggest or second biggest match of his professional career (he lost to Andy Roddick in the opening round of the 2012 U.S. Open).
“That’s bizarre,” Williams said of the turnaround. “That’s tennis for ya. Crazy things happen in this sport. You just gotta be ready. You gotta compete every point, because you never know when you’re going to get your chance. Luckily for me it came this week. I just kept my head down and kept fighting, and something good happened.”
A lot of good things happened for Williams in this one, but nothing was better than his forehand. Having endured a much more difficult semifinal match than Smyczek, Williams tried to keep points short with his favorite shot while looking to power his way to quick momentum. It did not always work against Smyczek’s rock-solid defense and impressive counter-punching, but it ended up being the difference in a first-set tiebreaker. Williams gave back two mini-breaks from 4-1 to 4-4, but he continued to dictate play from the back of the court and recovered for three straight points to snag the set.
“It seemed like every time I had at least a shadow of an opportunity he came up with something big,” Smyczek explained.
The No. 1 seed, however, did not go down without a fight. He seized momentum with a clutch service break at 5-5 in the second before closing it out one game later. Smyczek’s consistency had begun to pay off against Williams’ borderline go-for-broke style, just as it did in victories for Smyczek over Williams last month in Knoxville, TN and Champaign, IL. This time, though, the underdog’s forehand never went off course.
Williams regained control by breaking immediately in the third for a 2-0 lead. At that point he went into John Isner mode (with an equally big forehand but not quite the same serve, of course), conserving energy during return games and focusing on his own service efforts. He held easily the entire way to grab another one-set lead. Smyczek stayed on serve en route to 3-3 in the fourth, but breaks for Williams in the seventh game (on his fifth chance) and the ninth game ended the proceedings without too much drama.
“This is probably the best tennis I’ve ever played,” Williams said. “I’m moving incredibly well. I can hit (the forehand) big, but over and over it was going in. Everything just kind of came together. I didn’t expect to play that well, really…. It was a great week. I love Atlanta; I love playing here.”
The former Tennessee standout, ranked No. 190 in the world,” will next be playing at the warmup event in Brisbane. Smyczek, meanwhile, was the top seed this week and is easily into Australian Open qualifying with a ranking of 128th in the world.
Rhyne Williams & Jared Donaldson
Rhyne Williams upset top seed Tim Smyczek to win the Australian Open Wildcard Playoffs in Norcross, Georgia.
By Erik Gudris
Rhyne Williams AO Wildcard Playoffs (December 16th, 2012) -- After being a game away from elimination in yesterday's semis, former college standout Rhyne Williams played some of the best tennis of his young pro career to win the finals of the Australian Open Wildcard Playoffs in Norcross, Georgia.
Williams faced Tim Smyczek in Sunday's final with Smyczek having won their last two meetings at the tail end of the season. It was also the first time Williams had ever had to compete in a best of five match per Australian Open rules.
Both players grinded their way though the first set with long rallies as neither could gain an early advantage. The set concluded in a tiebreak that had several momentum shifts before Williams won it when Smyczek mishit on a groundstroke from the far baseline.
The second set was also a close battle with Williams pushing himself to try and earn a two sets to love lead. But down a break point late in the set, Williams sent a forehand well long that eventually set up Smyczek to level the match at one set all. Despite losing the set, Williams relaxed and started going for his shots even more, especially on his favorite forehand wing. After an early break, Williams opened up a 4-1 lead in the third set and went on to take it 6-3......read more
Rhyne Williams supports this old adage. Shortly after departing the collegiate tennis scene in July 2011, the Knoxville, Tenn. native tipped the scale at over 200 pounds. If he wanted to earn a living as a professional tennis player, Williams knew something had to give.
In reshaping his off-court habits over the course of the 2012 season, Williams jumped more than 300 spots to his current career-high ranking of World No. 190. His improved fitness made its mark this past Sunday, after he emerged victorious at the USTA Australian Open Wild card Play-offs in Norcross, Ga.
A former All-American at the University of Tennessee, the third-seeded Williams overcame No. 1 seed Tim Smyczek 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 to prevail in the final. Williams also defeated second seed Denis Kudla and Daniel Kosakowski in the eight-player event hosted by the Life Time Athletic & Tennis at Peachtree Corners.
In securing the Melbourne wild card, Williams will avoid the testing qualifying rounds. His countryman James Blake and Jack Sock are among the players who will battle it out for a place in the main draw.
ATPWorldTour.com caught up with 21-year-old Williams, discussing his performance in Georgia, tennis background, 2012 rankings rise and more in this Q&A feature…
Congratulations on winning the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Play-offs. How was the experience of winning three matches in three days?
It was interesting because it was an indoor event and everyone has been training outside. So it was a little different to go back indoors. I felt pretty comfortable on it and I moved well. I’ve been working extremely hard in the off-season, especially on movement. I think it’s already started to pay off.
It was pretty tough to play three matches in three days with no days off. I had a very physical second-round match with Denis Kudla. It was about three hours long and I had to come back the next day and play another tough opponent, Tim Smyczek, in a best-of-five set match. I haven’t done that very often, so it was new for me. It was a great tournament and I played really well.
You had lost to Smyczek twice before, so what reversed the outcome this time? Did you make adjustments to your game plan, was there a change in confidence or did you simply play your best tennis at the right time?
You’ve nailed it on the last one. I pretty much started playing incredibly well. I had lost to him the last two times, so I wasn’t expecting to go out there and play my best. I felt a little tired when I woke up, but I tried to play the best I could and stay positive. I didn’t change anything to be honest. My forehand and serve were working well for me. I just went after it and fought for every point.
Before winning the wild card, you already intended to make the trip to Australia. What are you looking forward to most about playing Down Under now that you've secured your first main draw berth in Melbourne?
Just the overall Grand Slam experience. It’s only my second main draw major appearance, so I’m just going to enjoy it the best I can and take away this new experience. I’ve never been to Australia, so that’s also very new for me. I’m looking forward to seeing a new culture and meeting new people. I have nothing to lose, so I can swing for the fences down there.
Your uncle, Mike de Palmer, played professionally and did quite well, peaking at No. 35 in singles and winning six doubles titles. Did he have any influence on your game and do you come from a tennis-playing family in general?
Yes, every single person in my family plays tennis. Both of my sisters; my mom and my dad; my grandfather coached at Tennessee; both uncles were coaches as well.
Mike was obviously a great player. He coached me for a couple years when I was 13 and 14. But I get it from everyone in the family. My mom taught me. Every family member has played some part in coaching me… and still do, haha.
So will you have extra people in your corner next month to accompany you on your first trip to Australia?
No one is coming with me, except my cousin Christopher. He also played tennis. He’s my full-time travelling coach now.
You began 2012 ranked outside the Top 500 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings and at season's end, you moved up to No. 190. What contributed to your huge rise?
When I left school, I was over 200 pounds. I could not really move around the court, so I think just my overall commitment to my physicality, becoming fit and working really hard off the court is the biggest thing that’s helped me. Without a high fitness level these days, you’re not going to last. Everyone can play and you have to be an animal to even think about getting inside the Top 100. I’ve really worked hard on my off-court habits.
Was there a moment when you realised the hard work was paying off?
I think the US Open was definitely the highlight. It was a huge moment for me, seeing the work was paying off. I felt really fit up there. I still need to get a lot better. Hopefully I’m not speaking too soon. I know it’s going to be hot as heck down in Australia, where it’s a whole different ball game.
What are you looking to accomplish in 2013 as you look to establish yourself on the ATP World Tour?
I haven’t sat down with my coach yet to talk about our goals for the upcoming year. Obviously, I still want to keep getting better. I want to improve my game, my backhand and movement around the court. With hard work, I know the results will come.