NORCROSS, Ga. — Facing the end of his match, former Tennessee All-American Rhyne Williams got the spark he needed for a late surge into the finals of the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoff.
Denis Kudla served for the match in the second set but Knoxvillian Williams regained momentum with some timely forehand winners and ran away in the third for a 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-1 victory.
Williams will face top-seeded Tim Smyczek for a wild card into the main draw of the Australian Open in January. Smyczek got to the finals by beating former Vol Tennys Sandgren 6-2, 6-2. The women's final begins at 1 p.m., followed by the men.
The second-seeded Kudla had Williams in trouble, taking advantage of unforced errors and up-and-down play through much of the first two sets. Kudla broke Williams' serve midway through the second set and had a chance to serve out the match at 5-3.
At that point, Williams found consistent rhythm on his forehand, one of his greatest weapons on court. He got ahead on Kudla's service game and got the break on a forehand winner.
"It really started clicking at the right time with my back against the wall and him serving for the match," Williams said. "I hit a few really big forehands, and, thankfully, it came around. The first set and a half, I felt a little tentative on the shot."
The crowd, nonpartisan for the most part but wanting a third set, cheered Williams through his final service games and the following tiebreaker, which he won 7-4.
After more than two hours of physical, long points, Williams looked the fresher of both players in the third set. After sprinting up to save break point with a near-impossible shoelace volley that slipped just over the net cross court for a winner at 1-1, Williams controlled the match from there, winning the last five games to advance.
Fitness has been Williams' main interest during his month-long offseason, spending more hours in the weight room and the track than on the courts.
"This offseason has been brutal, really," Williams said. "I haven't played that much tennis, to be honest. I've been mainly focusing on the fitness aspect. I feel pretty good out there.
"I thought I would be a little tired coming into this tournament but after today, it was a really physical match, but I don't really hurt. It's already paying off."
Now Williams turns his attention to Smyczek, who reached the semifinals of the Knoxville Challenger and won the season-finale Champaign Challenger in Illinois. He beat Williams in both tournaments.
"He got me both times," Williams said. "He's a great player and has been playing incredible at the end of the year."