Williams executed in the critical moments of the match and defeated Virginia's Alex Domijan 7-6 (8), 7-6 (4) at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
"I could tell right away it was going to be a good match," Williams said. "Maybe he didn't play his best tennis today. He didn't serve incredible, but I did play very well. The way I played today, I hope I can keep that going because that's the game style I want: moving around my backhands to hit forehands and serving well."
Senior John-Patrick Smith could not get his serve rolling until it was too late, falling 6-2, 6-4 to 12th-ranked Austin Krajicek of Texas A&M in his opening-round match.
Williams faces the Duke's Reid Carleton in the round of 16 on Friday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern. The main draw quarterfinal matches are scheduled for later in the afternoon. In the consolation draw, Smith plays Kirill Sinitsyn of Fresno Pacific at 11 a.m. A live blog will be available for all the Vols' matches.
Williams and Domijan had met several times before in the junior circuits, but the Intercollegiate Indoors marked their first collegiate match. Domijan, the 6-foot-7 freshman standout, entered the tournament with a perfect fall record. In fact, he had only lost one set, and that came in his title-clinching match at the ITA All-American Championships last month.
The two held serve throughout the first set, with Williams controlling his serve to send the match into a tiebreaker when he evened the score at 6-6.
Domijan took a 6-4 lead in the tiebreaker, but Williams saved two set points and tied it at 6-6 with a winner right down the line. Williams and Domijan stayed on serve until Williams took a 9-8 lead on a forehand winner. He took the first tiebreaker 10-8 on the next point.
Domijan rebounded from the tiebreaker loss and began the second set with a break, but Williams immediately answered to tie the score 1-1. Domijan got a second break when Williams was serving at 2-2, but again, the Knoxville native tied the set at 3-3.
"With him having such a great serve, I felt like I let up a little at the beginning of the second set and thought I was in trouble," Williams said. "But I hit some good returns and he missed some serves that allowed me to take control of some points on his serve and get back into it."
The second set also ended with a tiebreaker. Williams took a 6-5 lead with a forehand winner as he approached the net. With an opportunity to close out the match, he faulted on his first serve but got in his second attempt in play. Domijan hit a shot into the net to seal Williams' victory.
"Rhyne played so smart, so poised," associate head coach Chris Woodruff said. "He was obviously highly motivated to play this match and he deserved to win."
"He just really thought about the things we'd talked about and was focused. His forehand was superb today. Not only that, but the footwork and the effort he put in to his his forehand was terrific."
Williams, ranked 21st nationally, improved to 9-3 with two wins against top 10 opponents. As a new player, Domijan is not in the main national rankings, though he was list No. 1 in the ITA freshman and newcomer rankings in September.
The victory was the 50th of Williams' collegiate career. He had 41 wins in his freshman season.
In his opening match, Smith again struggled getting his first serve in play in the first set against Krajicek and lost 6-2. He opened the second set in similar fashion, falling behind 0-1 when Krajicek capitalized on the second chances.
After that, Smith's service game improved, and he nearly turned the corner towards the end of the match. He had two break point opportunities thanks in part to a pair of double faults by Krajicek.
With four of the eight seeded players losing in the first round, the consolation looks every bit as difficult as the main draw. Smith is the third seed in consolation. Domijan and Kentucky's Eric Quigley, seeded first and second in the main draw, are the top seeds in consolation.
USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships
Round of 32
Rhyne Williams, UT, def. (1) Alex Domijan, Virginia, 7-6 (8), 7-6 (5)
Alex Krajicek, UT, def. (5) John-Patrick Smith, UT, 6-2, 6-4
Round of 16
Rhyne Williams, UT, vs. Reid Carleton, Duke, 1:30
Consolation Round of 16
John-Patrick Smith, UT, vs. Kirill Sinitsyn, Fresno Pacific, 11 a.m.