March 30, 2011
By Matt Magill
Tennis is all about peaks and valleys for sophomore Rhyne Williams. As the regular-season heads to a close, he hopes he and the fourth-ranked Vols are on the rise.
After an All-America season for the Vols as a freshman, the Knoxville native has continued to make strides in his second campaign. In November, he become third Vol to win the USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships in Flushing, N.Y. A month later, he was one of eight players in the country to be invited to the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoff for a chance to earn a spot in the year's first grand slam.
Williams debuted at the No. 1 ranking to start off the spring season and has a 29-7 record entering weekend road matches at Mississippi State and Mississippi.
In this week's Q&A, Williams discusses choosing tennis as his primary sport, growing up a Vol fan, the spelling of his name and Tennys Sandgren's video game demeanor.
Q: This year you reached No. 1 in the national rankings. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
A: Well, it's a big honor. I really wasn't expecting it. Somehow I ended up playing the best tennis of my life at that tournament up in New York. It's an honor to be No. 1 in the country. It just kind of happened at a great time for me to be playing well. I don't really know how it happened, but it did and I'm really thankful for it. I just want to keep playing my best throughout the season and get wins for the team.
Q: Was there added pressure being No. 1 on the team?
A: Yeah, there was. I started off playing No. 1 for our team this season, but then I moved back down to No. 2. Everybody deals with pressure in their own way. Me playing No. 1 maybe wasn't best for me or for the team. Everything we do we do for the team. The lineup is what it is. Everyone's going to do their best in the position that they're in. Yeah, there's a little pressure, but I was excited.
Q: You mentioned playing well. How do you maintain the level of performance?
A: In tennis, when you're playing so well there's always going to be a drop afterwards. You train hard, and you plateau, then go down a little bit. It's just the peaks and valleys of tennis--that's just the way it is. When you're playing your best, you have to expect that you're going to come back down to earth--and that happened. Now I feel like we've been training hard through the start of the season, and I'm working my way back up. I'll be looking to play my best tennis at the end.
Q: You played in the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoff. Did that give you some pro experience?
A: Yeah, that was a really cool experience. The players were incredible. The guy I played in the first round was ranked in the 140-160 range, and I ended up winning. That was when I was playing unbelievably; I was still on a big high. The next match I played a fellow junior player that we had grown up playing together, Ryan Harrison. He's having some major success lately. He's broken into the top-100--the guy's a good player. We had a battle. I lost 9-7 in the third set, and I had some chances. It just gave me confidence that I can play at that level with those guys.
Q: You talk about these peaks and valleys. Where would you say you are right now?
A: I'm on the climb. I'm feeling better from the drop. I've recently lost about 10 pounds, which has been a goal. I'm happy with that. I'm feeling more comfortable and more fit on the court, and that always helps.
Q: If you're on the climb right now, you would reach your peak at the NCAA Tournament.
A: That's what I'm hoping for. That's where you want to peak. You don't really want to be playing your best right now and using it all up. I'm saving it for the end which is most important.
Q: You've hit with Roger Federer. Was that pretty cool?
A: I've practiced with him a couple of times--once in Miami and once in Cincinnati. It was amazing. There was a huge crowd. I was so nervous. He's a really nice guy, and it was just an honor to be on the court with him. He's the best player of all-time, so it was a neat experience.
Q: You and Tennys Sandgren are a doubles team...
A: We're two very different players. We're two very good singles players--but we have a lot to learn on the doubles court. We work on it in practice--believe me. Hopefully we're on the climb up. By the end of the year I think we'll be comfortable enough with each other to pretty much know exactly what's going on. We're still working it out in practice--working on volleys, working on the net. We're both pretty good from the baseline. Obviously doubles is more net play, so we're working on it and getting better. We're two good players. If we can learn to cooperate on the court, then we're going to be a heck of a team.
Q: How can you build that chemistry? Does it come through experience?
A: I think so. It's just putting in the hours, really. Boris (Conkic) and I did it all of last year, and we made it up to No. 4 in the nation. So just getting the feel for your partner--where they're going to hit it, what you can expect from him.
Q: You and Tennys are roommates, too.
A: We're great buddies. We've always been buddies. We grew up playing together in Tennessee. We're real close and that definitely helps, I think.
Q: Do you have any good Tennys stories?
A: Yes! Quite a few really. I'll give you a mild one. We play a lot of video games, and there's been some smashed controllers from Mr. Sandgren.
Q: What kind of video games do you guys play?
A: We play Call of Duty, FIFA and a little bit of NBA basketball--the usual.
Q: The way I understand it, you learned soccer from FIFA.
Q: Growing up you played baseball and basketball too. Tell me a little about that.
A: Well, I love those sports. I played them more than I played tennis up until when I was about 12 or 13. I really loved baseball. I remember sitting down at a table kind of like this with my parents. They said it was getting to hard and that I had to pick. It was a tough decision because tennis runs in the family, and I wanted to keep the tradition alive. At the same time I was doing really well in baseball. I was a pretty decent pitcher, so it was tough. I'm glad I picked tennis. It's led me here, and hopefully it will take me many more places.
Q: Growing up a Vol fan, do you have a favorite UT sports moment?
A: I would say just going to the games when Peyton Manning was quarterback. I remember going with my dad to all the games. It was just incredible watching them play. I remember watching Erik Ainge as well. Obviously, he wasn't nearly as good. Going to all the games with my dad and tailgating with my grandparents, eating lots of fried chicken: those are the best moments. Growing up football was my favorite to watch.
Q: You don't spell your name the traditional R-Y-A-N. Is there a story behind that?
A: It's a family name. It was my grandmother's maiden name. We actually have a clock company--Rhyne Lumber and Clock Company--up in Newport, Tenn. My dad is Robert Rhyne Williams as well. He goes by Bob, and I go by Rhyne.
Q: We're in the thick of SEC play, and then you have postseason tournaments. What can you expect from the rest of the season?
A: It's only going to get tougher. We've been travelling a lot. I can tell that we're getting a little bit tired, but that's normal. It's just who deals with it the best is going to be the champion in the end. We've already proven that we're a heck of a team just by our results this year. We just need to keep grinding and use our experience from last year to hopefully get through the season.
Q: Does experience play a factor?
A: I think so. We've been to three finals of three national tournaments in a row. I know we haven't won one, but it's a great experience to have under your belt. We feel like we've been there before. We're an experienced team, and we've played a lot of tennis in our days. That's definitely a big thing for us.
Q: No one on the team has a Twitter account. Who would be the best account if they had one?
A: I would probably say Jarryd Chaplin. He's got those rose videos on the internet. He's probably the best people person on the team, and he's fun to follow. He's a good jokester, a good prankster. He'd probably be entertaining to follow with that.