Dec. 16, 2012
NORCROSS, Ga. -- Just a few months ago, former Tennessee Volunteer Rhyne Williams qualified for the U.S. Open to make his career Grand Slam debut.
Now chalk up another first for the 21 year old from Knoxville: an appearance in the Australian Open in his debut trip Down Under.
Williams earned a spot into the first major of the year Sunday by defeating top-seeded Tim Smyczek 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-2, 6-3 to win the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs at Sport Time Tennis.
"I woke up this morning and just told myself that I was going to try to give myself the best chance to win and just compete every point," Williams said. "Somehow, I didn't break down physically and held it together mentally. Everything just kind of came together and I played the best tennis I've ever played."
Entering the final, Williams knew exactly the challenge he was facing. Williams had lost in straight sets to Smyczek in the final two tournaments of the season in Knoxville and Champaign, Ill., in early November. Smyczek was the top seed for a reason; he ended the year on a hot streak by winning the title in Champaign and and entered the week ranked No. 128.
The first two sets were extremely close and physically demanding, each taking about an hour to complete. Williams served to force a tiebreaker in the first set, and Smyczek uncharacteristically missed on three straight shots into the net on the final points of the tiebreaker to give Williams the first set 7-6 (4).
Smyczek bounced back in the second set, breaking Williams' serve at 5-5 and fighting off a set point in the next game to even the match at one set each.
After two sets, Williams looked to be the more weary of the two players, breathing heavily and taking his time to ready himself between long points. Sunday was, after all, a learning experience for him. He had only played one five-set format match in his life, and that was in September in the U.S. Open against Andy Roddick.
Anything beyond three sets was new territory, and losing the second set meant he was guaranteed to play at least four.
"To be honest, I really gave all I had those first two sets," Williams said. "I really wanted to get up two sets to love. And when I didn't, I had a little letdown but somehow it helped me. It calmed me down. I couldn't use any extra energy yelling and screaming and throwing my racquet. I knew that I couldn't waste energy."
In the final two sets, conservation was key as Williams waited for his opportunities and capitalized.
He broke Smyczek's serve early and jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third set on his way to rolling 6-2. The fourth set started out much closer, but Williams eventually broke Smyzcek at 3-3 and stayed in command from there.
On the second match point at 5-3, Smyczek hit a shot long ,and Williams threw up his arms and racquet in thankful -- and exhausted -- triumph to end the three-hour match.
Williams was headed for Australia regardless of the outcome of his match Sunday. He's scheduled to start the new year at the Brisbane International. Now he can cross off Australian Open qualifying off his agenda.
It will be Williams' first trip to Australia. While he competed in the boys' tournament at the three other Grand Slams growing up, he never made the trip to Melbourne Park. He said he is looking forward to playing the summer circuit in Australia, adding with a smile that the long flight there is what he dreads the most.
"This stuff comes out of nowhere, and I'm just going to have fun with it and try my best," Williams said. "It's going to be an awesome experience no matter who I play. I'm in the main draw of the Australian Open. People would give their right arm for that."