By Pat Mitsch
Norcross, Ga. – Facing elimination from the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs, Rhyne Williams of Knoxville, Tenn., rose to the occasion.
The third-seeded Williams defeated No. 2 Denis Kudla of Arlington, Va., 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-1, in a lengthy semifinal Saturday at Life Time Athletic & Tennis at Peachtree Corners to put himself one win away from capturing a main draw wild card into the 2013 Australian Open.
After falling behind a set and being pushed to a tiebreak in the second, the 6-foot-1 Knoxville native buckled down and finally began to leverage his forehand against the 5-foot-11 Kudla.
As a result, the former Tennessee Volunteer and 2011 NCAA Tournament runner-up will play top-seeded Tim Smyczek of Milwaukee in Sunday’s final, a best-of-five-set match that emulates the Grand Slam format.
"The first set and a half, I felt a little tentative on the shot – maybe wasn’t going for enough," said Williams, 21. "He’s got a really tricky game, too. He hits the ball really low and flat, so it’s pretty tough. I like the ball up high so I can hit down on it. But he really keeps it below my knees, and I have to really use my legs and get under the ball, and it took me a while to get used to the pace of his shot and the way it was bouncing.
"Luckily, I came up with some big forehands in the second set tiebreaker, and I kind of got on a roll after that."
Williams will need to continue that momentum against Smyczek, who defeated Williams' former collegiate teammate and frequent doubles partner Tennys Sandgren of Gallatin, Tenn., 6-2, 6-2, in Saturday’s other men’s semifinal. Smyczek, who qualified and advanced to the second round of the US Open this summer, finished his 2012 season with a semifinal appearance at the USTA Pro Circuit Challenger in Knoxville and a title at the USTA Pro Circuit Challenger in Champaign, Ill.
In each of those tournaments, Smyczek beat Williams along the way.
"I’ve played Rhyne a couple times the last two tournaments of the year, and I was able to win those, but each time we’ve played it seems like he was figuring some more stuff out," said Smyczek, who won a similar playoff tournament in 2011 to earn a wild card into the US Open. "I’m just going to go back and rest up and try to get ready for five sets tomorrow."
In the women’s semifinals, Madison Keys of Rock Island, Ill., cruised to a 6-0, 6-1 win over Alexa Glatch of Newport Beach, Calif., putting her back in the title match of the event she won last year. With a win in Sunday’s final, the 17-year old Keys can become the first woman to win the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs twice in a row and join Ryan Harrison (2009-10) as the only players to do so in the event’s five-year history.
"I thought I was serving well. I thought I was moving well. I’m just really happy with how I played today," Keys said. "I mean, I love these courts. I feel really good. I feel like in the offseason I worked really hard. I feel like I’m in shape, and I feel like I can get a lot of balls. So I think that’s helping, too."
Mallory Burdette of Jackson, Ga., overcame a second-set tussle with Grace Min of Atlanta in the other women’s semi en route to a 6-2, 7-6(7) victory, and will met Keys in Sunday’s final with the chance to play in her second career Grand Slam after reaching the third round of the US Open this summer.
"It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to that matchup," said Burdette, who lost her only match against Keys this summer on the USTA Pro Circuit in Lexington, 6-3, 6-0. "Last time I played Madison was over the summer, and I didn’t play as well, but I enjoy playing people who hit the ball really hard. I love that. I love aggressive tennis, and I think it’s going to be a very exciting match, lots of big shots hit on both sides.
The women’s final will begin Sunday at 1 p.m. The men’s will immediately follow.
To read a recap of the Day 1 action and results, click here
Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs
At Life Time Athletic & Tennis
(1) Tim Smyczek d. (4) Tennys Sandgren, 6-2, 6-2
(3) Rhyne Williams d. (2) Denis Kudla, 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-1
(3) Madison Keys d. (2) Alexa Glatch, 6-0, 6-1
(4) Mallory Burdette d. Grace Min, 6-2, 7-6(7)
(3) Madison Keys v. (4) Mallory Burdette
(1) Tim Smyczek v. (3) Rhyne Williams