FLUSHING, N.Y. -- After losing a shaky first set in just 25 minutes Sunday, sophomore Rhyne Williams sat down on the bench during and resolved to get back in contention in his first national championship appearance.
"It was just such a big match," Williams said. "There was no way I was going to go down quietly. I just wanted to really fight back hard, and that's what I did."
True to his word, Williams rallied the next two sets and defeated defending champion Steve Johnson of Southern California 1-6, 6-1, 6-4 to capture the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
He became the third UT champion and the first to win the Intercollegiate Indoors since three-time All-America Paul Annacone hoisted the trophy in 1984. It was Williams' first national individual title and his second career singles championship.
Nerves got the best of Williams at the start. He missed shots early and was broken twice. He started the match down 0-5, although he did manage two break point opportunities. Johnson eventually won the set 6-1.
"I was quite nervous, and I don't think I warmed up to well and prepared myself before the match," Williams said. "I came out flat. And you have to give credit to him. He really jumped on me and used his forehand really well at the beginning, and I was kind of lucky to get back into it."
Williams and Johnson completely reversed roles in the second set. The Knoxville native broke Johnson at 2-1 to start and rolled the rest of the way, tying the match with a 6-1 score in the set.
Until Sunday, Johnson had not had his serve broken the entire tournament.
"For some reason I got a read on his serve," Williams said. "I was very fortunate. These courts are really quick, and it's very important to read a guy's serve."
Williams had a break-point opportunity in the third-set with the match tied at 4-4. Williams accidentally mishit the return on Johnson's second serve, but the ball cleared the net for a winner, giving the Vol a 4-3 lead.
Three games later, Williams won the match on a serve that Johnson could not return, and he immediately threw his racket toward the ceiling and erupted in his characteristic shout of celebration.
During the four-day tournament, Williams defeated five ranked opponents. He started the 32-player event in a head-turning way, upsetting top-seeded freshman standout Alex Domijan of Virginia via two tiebreakers. He beat ninth-ranked Alexandre Lacroix in the semifinals Saturday and captured the championship with a tense win over seventh-ranked Johnson.
"This is a really special tournament; you go back and look at the winners, it's a who's who of professional tennis," Tennessee associate head coach Chris Woodruff said. "It was really great that Rhyne won this tournament. JP (Smith) won the outdoor equivalent of this last year in the All-American. To come and win this indoor this year, it's a sign our program is headed in the right direction."
Woodruff said Williams has had the skills to win national championships, but the main issue in the past has been the ability to maintain focus throughout a tournament.
"He definitely has the ability to play top-100 level tennis -- top-50 level tennis, I think," Woodruff said. "Who knows after that. I was wondering if he was focused. To his credit, he kept it together. He kept the puzzle together without losing any pieces."
Williams finished the fall with a 13-3 record, but Sunday was his first championship appearance of the season. He lost in the semifinals at the UVa Ranked Plus One Invitational in September and exited the ITA All-American Championships in the round of 16 against Lacroix.
"I wasn't too happy with my fall until this week," Williams said. "This kind of made my fall. Hopefully, I can take this into the spring when it really matters."
USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships
Rhyne Williams, UT, def. Steve Johnson, Southern California, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4
Photo on front page courtesy of Paul Ballard, zootennis.com