Knoxville's Caitlyn Williams spent years playing the highest levels of junior tennis, and now it's a whole new game playing for the University of Tennessee.
She's having a blast.
Sparked by cheering from fans and injured teammate Natalie Pluskota, Williams provided the winning point as the No. 5-ranked Lady Vols beat No. 22 South Carolina 4-3 on Sunday afternoon at Goodfriend Tennis Center.
"It's definitely different than junior tennis," Williams said. "I like it a lot more. The whole team aspect of it is just really a whole lot of fun for me."
Williams' 6-4, 6-4 victory over Dominika Kanakova at No. 3 singles ended just moments after the Lady Vols' Kata Szekely pulled out a 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (5) victory over Jaklin Alawi at No. 2 singles and tied the team match at 3-3.
It was the fourth time this season Williams has had the clinching point for UT (10-4, 1-1 SEC) — but the first time her clinching match has been the last completed.
Williams said she tried to focus on her match and not pay attention to Szekely's, which was played two courts away.
"I was a little bit nervous, of course," Williams said. "Anyone in my position would be. I just had faith that Kata was going to pull that one out, and hopefully that it was going to come down to my match, and it did, and I ended up closing it out for the team."
Szekely, a junior, was up a service break with a 5-2 lead in the third set, but lost the next three games. She was keeping an eye on Williams' score — even though UT's coaches tell players to avoid doing it.
"I'm not supposed to, but I always look at the other courts, like how they are doing," Szekely said. "I knew Caitlyn was winning because she was up by a lot, so I knew it was depending on me."
Szekely fell behind 1-4 in the tiebreaker, but won the next five points. After Alawi hit a backhand winner, Szekely ended the match with a backhand winner that hit the left sideline.
"I knew if I lost, it was over, so I wanted to win every point, point by point," Szekely said.
Pluskota, normally the No. 1 single players, missed her fifth consecutive match with a foot injury, but could return for Friday's match at Ole Miss. She was quite vocal while pulling for Williams — at one stage causing Kanakova to glare at her.
UT won all three doubles matches to clinch the doubles point and took a 2-0 lead when Brynn Boren beat Anya Morgina 6-1, 6-1 at No. 1 singles.
South Carolina (7-3, 0-2 SEC) came back for a 3-2 lead with victories at the bottom three courts over UT freshmen Sarah Toti (No. 4), Joanna Henderson (No. 5), and Jesse Grace (No. 6).
That left the match on the shoulders of Szekely and Williams.
"Anytime you have a freshman (Williams) that clinches a match, it definitely shows the maturity and the toughness of them," UT co-head coach Sonia Hahn-Patrick said. "This was a great team effort. I'm just proud of them."
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.