Rhyne Williams, who reached the NCAA singles final as a sophomore at Tennessee, has decided to turn pro.
Williams is following the career path of another Knoxville native who turned pro after his sophomore season, Chris Woodruff, who won the NCAA singles title in 1993. Woodruff is the associate head coach for UT's men's tennis team.
"I just felt like it was the right time to make the transition to playing tennis full time,'' Williams said Monday as he prepared for a $50,000 Challenger in Lexington, Ky.
"It's time to leave school and focus on tennis.''
Williams actually played as a pro in a $100,000 Challenger in California a week ago. He got into the main field as a lucky loser during qualifying, then defeated Robby Ginepri in the first round 6-2, 6-4, before losing 7-6 in a third-set tie-breaker to Australian Karsten Ball on hard courts.
Williams said he accepted his $2,400 in earnings in California. He won a USTA Futures event in Innisbrook, Fla., earlier this month as an amateur, taking only about $1,000 in expenses, not the winner's share of $1,400.
Williams won the ITA National Indoors in November, and he was ranked No. 1 in singles part of this past season. He won at least 40 matches two consecutive seasons.
Tennessee coach Sam Winterbotham, in Switzerland recruiting, complimented Williams.
"Rhyne's been fantastic for us at Tennessee,'' Winterbotham said. "I think the coaching staff felt one more year would have been good for him, but I think if he says he's ready, then he's got to go.
"We're really proud of what he's done at UT and proud of the way he's represented us. We wish him well. We're his biggest fans. We want him to succeed. He needs to lead the Vols' charge on the pro tour.''
Smith is joined on the pro tour by former teammates John-Patrick Smith and Boris Conkic, both of whom completed stellar careers at Tennessee in May.
Winterbotham wasn't sure if winning at Innisbrook was the deciding factor in Williams' decision to go pro.
"I don't think it's based purely off results,'' Winterbotham said. "It's a tough decision for Rhyne. He was a young man who faced that decision two years ago. Two years ago, he made the right decision to go to college.
"Tennessee was definitely a great influence on his game and he's developed very well here. If he feels like he's ready, it's not for us to say, 'No you're not.' We're behind him. I'm really hoping he shoots up the rankings and gets the support he needs to be successful.''
Williams is the fourth player to leave Tennessee's SEC regular-season championship team.
The top returner is rising junior Tennys Sandgren. Other returners are Ed Jones, Jarryd Chaplin, Bryan Swartz and Taylor Patrick.
UT signed Webb School's Brandon Fickey and Hunter Reese, who enrolled in January and redshirted. UT recently signed two foreign players, who Winterbotham did not identify. Both plan to enroll in August and are candidates to play singles.
Winterbotham said at the end of last season that if everyone who is eligible returns, UT could be a top five team. That appears doubtful without Williams on the roster.
Jimmy Hyams is a freelance contributor.