Is Rising American Tennis Player Rhyne Williams the Real Deal?
April 13, 2013 – In a semifinal that was physically much closer than the scoreline indicated, world No. 12 and US Men’s Clay Court Championship No. 1 seed Nicolas Almagro defeated 22-year-old rising American Rhyne Williams, 6-2, 6-1.
But don’t be fooled by the skewed scoreline, as eight of the first eleven games went to 30 or deuce on each player’s serve. Given Almagro’s commanding style to punish his opponents by running them around the court, Williams took the early initiative on most points in the first set, but his transition game and net play got over-powered by one of the best active players on clay.
Leading up the match, Williams had spent nearly seven hours on court in Houston, while Almagro not even half of that. After his win yesterday, Williams admitted that his left quad and glut were sore and that he was near cramping. He wasn’t sure how his body would hold up in the semi today, but he played through any pain to put on a stellar performance for the crowd.
On groundstrokes and serving alone, the match was nearly a draw. But it was Almagro’s experience on clay that proved most effective in the end and he advanced to his 19th career final on clay.
Despite today’s loss, Williams should feel confident with his performance this week and celebrate his breakthrough. Not only will he reach a career-high ranking of around 116 come Monday, but in only his first ATP-level clay court tournament, Williams recorded his first ATP quarterfinal and semifinal appearances — and no less on his favorite surface. “An American with his best surface on clay?” you might be asking. Yes. Despite his recent hard court title in Dallas, his first three tournament titles all came at clay events in Madrid, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Williams, who received a wildcard into Houston, earlier this week posted wins over Argentine Guido Pella 7-5, 7-5 in the first round, 2007 champion Ivo Karlovic 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(3) and Spaniard Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo 7-6(1), 1-6, 6-4 to reach the semis.
With his fiery and animated personality on court, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether Williams is happy or angry from photos, and he has joked about the same. (For the record, the photo at right was taken after he defeated Ramirez Hidalgo to reach the semis. See? Not so simple.) But whether he’s smashing his racquet in disgust due to a bad serve, or fist-pumping after a wicked forehand winner, he always wears his heart on his sleeve – and it’s easy to get behind the American with his recent success.
So, where does Williams fit in with the current crop of fresh-faced Americans on tour? Well, for one, he is now the youngest and highest-ranked American of generation “next,” and the new No. 9 ranked American overall.
With the retirement of Andy Roddick last year and the ensuing hype of finding the next top American in the likes of players like Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, Williams has emerged onto the Tour a bit under the radar. Until now, that is. He has now not only out-ranked his fellow Americans, but outplayed them as well, leading their overall head-to-head matchups seven to four.
While it’s true that you shouldn’t judge a player based on one great run at a tournament, Williams’ trajectory has been far from that as his 2013 results show.
After finishing off the 2012 season ranked at a respectable 192 after starting the year outside of the top 500, Williams had a bit of a slow start during his first trip to Australia. He lost in the qualifying rounds of Brisbane and Sydney before falling in the first round of the Australian Open after being up two sets to love against No. 25 seed Florian Mayer. The former Tennessee Volunteer then kicked it into high gear and went on to win his first Challenger title in Dallas the following month by defeating veteran Robby Ginepri. Two weeks later, Williams qualified for his home state tournament in Memphis and defeated former USC Trojan Steve Johnson in the first round before falling to world No. 23 Alexandr Dolgopolov, 6-4 in the third.
After appearances in Indian Wells and Miami in March, Williams headed back to the USTA Training Center in Boca Raton, FL where he trains, to continue working on his fitness while making the transition to clay.
In heavy contrast, Williams’ compatriots have had somewhat inconsistent performances this year. Despite reaching the Memphis quarterfinals, Sock has failed to make it past the second round on all but one of his six other tournaments in 2013. Similarly, Johnson reached the Maui Challenger and San Jose quarterfinals, but failed to make it past the first round in any of his other six tournaments this year.
The reason for Williams’ consistency compared to his fellow Americans can stem from several things, but outside of his natural talent for the sport, two reasons come to mind: his focus on mental and physical fitness, and his family — and the two often intersect.
A native of Knoxville, TN, Williams turned pro in 2011 after playing two years at the University of Tennessee where he won the 2010 USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship. After admitting to tipping the scales at just over 200 pounds after leaving college, the American put in the hard hours and is now listed on the ATP site at a fit 185lbs for his 6’1” frame. Though he admitted this week that he still needs to lose “5 to 8 pounds” to hang with the top players in long grueling matches, his attacking game style and rocket forehand are already competitive enough for the top 50.
His roots in tennis are also deeper than many players’ as Williams hails from a tennis family. His mother, father and both sisters have played or still currently play at the collegiate level, his grandfather is the co-founder of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and coached at Tennessee, his uncle Mike de Palmer Jr. was a top 35 ATP player and former coach of Boris Becker, and his cousin, Christopher, a former fellow Vol currently coaches and travels with Williams.
Few players – if any – hold this kind of tennis pedigree, but it hasn’t always been easy. Williams admitted last year that he decided to go to college in order to mature before hitting the pro tour, and that time spent learning the mental game in a team setting has helped him achieve his results today.
Furthermore, not only has his cousin Christopher’s master’s in sports psychology continued to fuel his mental game by bringing an emotional attachment to his goals, but his ability to travel as a coach also brings a unique stability to Williams’ training. Unless you’re John Isner or Sam Querrey, a travelling coach is financially not possible for players around Williams’ ranking, and it’s surprising still how many top players don’t travel with a mental coach. Given both his support system and focused approach to his training, Williams is on the right path to continue climbing the rankings steadily.
So what exactly is next for the Houston semifinalist?
Williams will now travel to three Challenger events in Sarasota, Savannah and Tallahassee which are all also on clay. The collective group of tournaments is part of the USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge which grants the winner an automatic bid into the main draw of Roland Garros through a reciprocal wildcard exchange with the French Tennis Federation.
If Williams had made the Houston final, he wouldn’t have needed to vie for the wildcard as his ranking would have been high enough to gain him direct entry, since the acceptance list is based on Monday’s rankings. However, with his ranking now hovering around 116, he will most likely need to either play the qualifying tournament or win the reciprocal wildcard this month if he hopes to make the main draw in Paris. But given his current form and the fact that he won the Australian Open Wildcard Challenge back in December to get a wildcard Down Under, he not only has the winning confidence but also the experience to pull off the feat.