Tennessee sophomore Rhyne Williams
© University of Tennessee
Williams leads the charge after Tennessee clinched the 2010 SEC title.
© University of Tennessee
Williams is pumped up during a match.
© University of Tennessee
Rhyne Williams is playing college tennis in his own backyard, as the Knoxville native is currently in his sophomore season competing for the No. 2-ranked University of Tennessee men's tennis team. Currently one of the top players in the country at No. 3 in the NCAA Division I rankings, Williams' results include winning his first major title of the season at the 2010 USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship in Flushing, N.Y., where he upset top-seed Alex Domijan of Virginia in the opening round before defeating college's current No. 1 player Steve Johnson of USC in the final.
Williams has received many accolades during his young college career, including 2010 All-America, 2010 NCAA Championships All-Tournament Team, 2010 SEC Freshman of the Year, 2010 SEC First Team All-SEC, 2010 SEC All-Freshman Team and 2010 SEC Freshman Academic Honor Roll honors. He was also selected as a member of the USTA Summer Collegiate Team in 2010 and won the doubles title with his Tennessee teammate Tennys Sandgren at the USTA Futures event in Pittsburgh.
Williams is continuing the tennis tradition in his family, which has a strong history with the sport. His grandfather Mike DePalmer Sr., coached Tennessee from 1981-94 and led the team to the NCAA finals in 1991. His mother, Michelle DePalmer Williams, played professional tennis, and his father, Bob, played collegiate tennis at Duke. He is also the nephew of Mike DePalmer Jr., an All-American in tennis for the Vols in 1981 and 1982.
The 19-year-old recently took time from his schedule to answer questions for USTA.com about growing up in a tennis family, what it’s like playing for the Vols in his hometown of Knoxville, what he enjoys most about being on a team and much more.
USTA.com: You come from a tennis family. When did you start playing tennis? When did you know it was something you wanted to do seriously?
Rhyne Williams: I was around seven when I had my first lesson. My mom taught me everything, all the technique. My uncles helped me my whole life. My grandfather, as well. I’ve gotten quite a bit of coaching from pretty much every member of my family.
I think I was around the age of 12 that I had a pretty good idea that tennis was going to become a big part of my life. I’d played other sports up until I was about 13, when I quit basketball and baseball and just starting playing tennis. I got pretty serious about tennis when I was about 12 and started playing national events.
The sport runs in my family, and I just wanted to play an individual sport. I was just best at it. I’m a better tennis player than a baseball or basketball player.
USTA.com: You were one of the top recruits in the class of 2009. Tell us a little about the recruiting process and why you chose Tennessee.
Rhyne Williams: My initial thoughts were that I wanted to kind of get away from home, change it up and get out of Knoxville. But the more I thought about it, I realized that I’d been traveling so much my whole life, I really hadn’t spent that much time at home. Now I can’t imagine myself playing for any other school. It was all my decision, as well. No one really had anything to do with it but me.
Chris (Woodruff) has been a huge family friend for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved Chris. My grandfather coached him here, and we have a really strong relationship. Once I got to know Sam (Winterbotham) a lot better, I really fell in love with the program here. It’s hard to have a better coaching staff than we do here. Sam is really good and Chris being such a great player – he was top 15 in the world. The credentials that they have are up there.
I really believe in this program. I love being in Knoxville and love the city. I’ve always been the biggest Tennessee fan, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
USTA.com: Did you ever think about going pro right from juniors, or did you always know you wanted to go to college? Was that a hard decision for you to make?
Rhyne Williams: I had always wanted to go pro, rather than go to school. It was a tough decision, and I’m glad I came here. I feel like I’ve grown up a lot. I’ve learned a lot about my game and what I need to improve to take the next step into the professional level. I don’t think I was ready at age 17 to go pro. I really like the way my game is developing here, and we’ll see where it takes me.
USTA.com: Former Georgia star John Isner has had a lot of recent success on the ATP Tour. We’re also seeing other former college stars start to climb the rankings. How does that help college tennis and junior players making their college choices?
Rhyne Williams: It’s massive. College tennis is obviously showing how strong it is. There’s no doubt that the top-20, top-30 level in college is very high. There are only a few in college now who will make it to the top 100 in the ATP, but that’s a very big step. There are certainly a lot of players who can play at a high level in college, and it’s certainly very competitive.
USTA.com: You have had an outstanding year so far in singles, winning the title at the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship. What are your goals for yourself and for your team this season?
Rhyne Williams: We had a sad loss up in Seattle. We would have liked to have won that one and had a national championship under our belt, but now we just have to look forward to the outdoor season. I’m sure everyone’s looking forward to that. We all love playing outside. SEC season is so great, and we just want to make another statement in the SEC this year. I feel like we can repeat in conference this year and go undefeated again. That’s our short-term goal.
Long term, we’re working to improve our games during the outdoor season. Hopefully, we’re all peaking at the NCAAs. We would love to go one step further and win the whole thing this year. I know we have the team to do it. We just got to believe.
USTA.com: There are a lot of great rivalries in the SEC. Which match do you look forward to the most?
Rhyne Williams: Every team in the SEC is gunning for us. Georgia is always an exciting match because there’s such a rivalry between Tennessee and Georgia that goes way back, probably before I was born. There are always a lot of people at those matches. Florida is one of Tennessee’s biggest rivals, as well. We play them at home this year, and we’ll hopefully draw a big crowd for that one.
Every team in the SEC is competitive. Nobody likes to lose, and nobody likes each other. Maybe it’s a different story off the court, but once you get on the court, the SEC is the most competitive conference in the nation.
USTA.com: What team has the toughest crowd to play in front of?
Rhyne Williams: The last few years, I’d like to say we’ve become extremely tough to play in Knoxville. With the team we have, we’re hard to beat at our home. It was great seeing more and more fans showing up for matches and cheering us on as the season went on last year.
USTA.com: As a student-athlete, free time is tough to find. How do you balance your academics, tennis and personal life?
Rhyne Williams: We like to have fun as a team. We’re really close. We always find ways to hang out, goof around, maybe go see a movie and go out to dinner as a team. You know, it’s the small things like that that help you keep balanced. Everyone on the team is a best friend to me. We’re extremely close. Being around each other, we don’t get sick of each other. We do a lot of team-building stuff that brings us together. It’s really enjoyable. It takes your mind off things, knowing you have your best buddies around you at all times.
USTA.com: What’s the best thing about college tennis and about Tennessee?
Rhyne Williams: The best thing about college tennis is having a chance to play on a team. Everyone grew up playing tennis as individuals. If none of us had come to college, none of us would know what it was like to be on a team. We probably never would have even met each other or have the friendships that we do. Playing for something bigger than yourself is an honor. We all love doing it. We love competing together. Competing with your best friends is something that we love. I think that the team aspect of college is a big deal, and I’m really enjoying it.
And for me, playing for my city is a real honor. I grew up 10 minutes from the courts. I’ve always been a big Vol fan. Having a chance to play for the school I’ve always loved is a cool thing for me.
USTA.com: What advice do you have for junior tennis players who want to play in college?
Rhyne Williams: I would say you need to follow your gut feeling. Take all your visits. Take all the visits you can, and really think about where you want to spend the next four years of your life. This is probably the most important time in your life. It’s a big stepping stone for your life. You just have to really think about where it is you want to be. Pick the program that fits your game the best and is going to help you develop and grow as a person and as a player.