PALO ALTO, Calif. (utlsports.com) -- Sophomore Rhyne Williams can add his name to the list of Tennnessee Volunteers who have come painfully close to an NCAA title in recent years.
Impressively, the Vols have reached either the singles or doubles championship match the last four seasons, yet have come away with the runner-up trophy every time. On Monday, Williams could not snap that spell in singles.
Top-ranked Steve Johnson of Southern California raised his level of play in the second and third sets, and Williams could not keep pace, falling 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 in the final of the NCAA Singles Championships.
Johnson, who led USC to its third consecutive team title last week, dropped only two sets the entire tournament, to Williams in Monday’s final and to Tennessee senior John-Patrick Smith in the round of 16.
“(Johnson’s) an unbelievable player and we’ve had some good battles,” Williams said. “Today, I think he was just the better player. He’s had a great two weeks out here.”
Monday’s NCAA championship was a rematch of the singles final at the USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championship in November. Williams had defeated Johnson that meeting 1-6, 6-1, 6-4 in a wild, up-and-down match where he rallied down a break in the third set to hoist the national indoor crown.
There was no case of nerves for Williams to start against the top-seeded Trojan. The Knoxville native opened the championship by breaking Johnson’s serve and eventually take the first set 6-4.
“I think maybe he was a little nervous,” said Williams, who was seeded fourth in the 64-player tournament. “I caught a few returns in the middle of the racket and had a really good start. I served pretty well the first set, and then maybe my legs died a bit.”
After the first set, however, the momentum swung quickly in Johnson’s favor.
Williams’ physical 6-3, 3-6, 6-0 semifinal match Sunday against fellow Vol Tennys Sandgren proved to be a physically taxing victory. Rallies sometimes lasted 20 strokes or more against Sandgren, and fatigue took its toll on Williams in the second and third sets of the title match.
Johnson, on the other hand, had reached the championship with a much shorter semifinal courtesy of a retirement by Michael Shabaz of Virginia midway through the second set.
Without fresh legs, Williams lost accuracy in his service game and had to rely on his second serve more often than not, producing a few double faults along the way.
“My serve went downhill after the first set, and I didn’t really get any free points after that,” Williams said. “That was a big key to me not doing that well in the second and third sets.”
Johnson broke Williams to start the second set and did so again in the third. He broke Williams again at 4-1 in the final frame and held for the 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory.
“I tried to fight, but there wasn’t really much left in the tank,” Williams said. “He stepped up his game in the second and third set, and I couldn’t really hang. I used it all up in the first set maybe.”
The loss snapped Williams’ nine-match winning streak, and he ended his sophomore year with a 42-10 record, leading the Vols in victories.
In the end, Smith came the closest to defeating Johnson during the tournament. Smith broke Johnson’s serve four times and led in the third set but could not close the deal, losing 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 in the round of 16 to end his career.
If anyone, Smith understands the pain of an NCAA final loss. He was a singles finalist as a freshman in 2008 and a doubles finalist with Davey Sandgren in 2009 and 2010.
Associate head coach Chris Woodruff remains the only Vol to have won the NCAA singles crown, accomplishing the feat in front of a full Georgia crowd in 1993.
The championship match officially brought the Vols’ 2011 season to a close. Tennessee ended the season ranked fourth nationally, the fourth consecutive year the team has finished in the top 10 in the rankings. A school-record four Vols — Smith, Williams Sandgren and Boris Conkic — received All-America honors, and Smith was named SEC Player of the Year for the second season in a row.
With seniors Smith, Conkic and Matteo Fago having received their college degrees several weeks ago, the Vols will certainly have a different when they return to the courts in September for the individual fall season.
NCAA Singles Championships
(1) Steve Johnson, Southern California, def. (4) Rhyne Williams, Tennessee, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1