Former Vol Rhyne Williams wins qualifier for Australian Open

amanda pruitt/tennessee athletics
Rhyne Williams returns a shot during his match Sunday in the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Norcross, Ga.

amanda pruitt/tennessee athletics Rhyne Williams returns a shot during his match Sunday in the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Norcross, Ga.

NORCROSS, Ga. — Just a few months ago, 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.

The former Tennessee All-American 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.

The victory was the third in three days for Williams. After needing three sets to oust second-seeded Denis Kudla on Saturday, Williams weathered the challenge of playing a five-set format match against the more experienced Smyczek.

"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."

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 won the title in Champaign 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 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.

"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."

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