Austin Williams has an uncanny resemblance to Justin Bieber, who rose to superstardom before he was shaving.
Williams, a 16-year-old from Wichita, isn’t looking for superstardom. But he does want to reach his potential as a tennis player, a trek that has taken him all over the United States as he diligently works on his game hour after hour, day after day.
“It didn’t appear that I had any natural ability in tennis when I first started playing when I was 10,” Williams said. “But I wanted to stick with it. I thought I was getting better at my own speed.”
Now, Williams is one of the top-ranked players in the AAU’s Missouri Valley region, which encompasses five states. And the only thing holding him back, his coaches and trainers say, is exposure.
“I see someone who has all the fundamental parts to build a really great engine,’’ said long-time Wichita instructor Rex Coad, who works with Williams at the Wichita Country Club. “He’s just got to get a more mature approach to his tennis and he has to improve his strategic approach to the game. A lot of kids his age can hit the ball really hard. A lot of kids have the pieces but it’s the guys who put them together who succeed.’’
Williams is 6-feet-2 and his power is impressive. He has a devastating serve and two-handed backhand, but is working on balance with his forehand. And when I say working, I’m talking about many, many hours on the tennis court doing tedious drills over and over.
Williams is home-schooled through Connections Academy, based out of Elkhart High School. He studies the way any high school student would study, he says, and has maintained a B-plus grade average.
But when there’s free time away from his books, he’s not usually posting on Facebook (although he does have an account) or thinking of a cute tweet (but he is on Twitter). He said he hasn’t played a video game since he was 13. Williams isn’t even that interested in driving, even though he was eligible to obtain his license less than two months ago.
Nope, when he doesn’t have a nose in a book, Williams has a tennis racket in his hands.
“I go five or six places a day to practice tennis so I think driving gets old pretty fast,’’ Williams said.
Williams played soccer and basketball when he was a kid, but it wasn’t working out.
His mother, Lynn, was a state-champion middle-distance runner at Bishop Carroll who competed at Tennessee. His father, Craig, was a standout pole-vaulter at East High. Neither had much of a background in tennis, but it’s a sport Austin wanted to pursue.
It was rocky at first because Williams didn’t really know what hand he wanted to use. He did some things left-handed, others right-handed. He felt comfortable serving with his right arm, but preferred playing volleys as a left-hander.
Eventually, he started using his right hand and arm in all aspects of tennis and has developed an impressive power game, helped by the leverage his 6-2 frame provides.
But there is definitely room to get better.
“It’s well documented that there’s a 10,000-hour rule,’’ said Williams’ trainer, Tracy Wehrmann. “That’s how many hours it take from starting out as a novice to becoming an expert in any field.’’
So improvement can be incremental, sometimes almost impossible to notice. One of Wehrmann’s job is to help Williams understand how to comprehend his improvement.
“Austin was not very athletic when he came to us in October last year,’’ Wehrmann said. “His body was locked up and because of that some of his hits were off.’’
Williams has gotten better with his strength and agility, but Wehrmann said it will be another six months before there can be an evaluation.
“He hasn’t reached a plateau at all and that’s the thing that encourages me the most,’’ Wehrmann said. “He is so raw from what I know of athletes that I don’t even think he is at the bottom of his potential yet. I’m thinking this kid has a lot of room to get better.’’
That’s what excites Williams’ coaches most. He has had enough success on the AAU circuit to keep him focused, but not nearly enough to cause him to become complacent.
“He has some intangibles that a lot of tennis players around here don’t have,’’ said Darron Weidenheimer, another of Williams’ Wichita coaches. “It’s exciting to see a kid with this kind of promise and one who will get out and work on his game on his own with many different players.’’
Weidenheimer compares Williams favorably to some of Wichita’s strong junior tennis players of the past, including Buff Farrow, Eric Fahnestock and Matt Wright.
“Austin probably has even a bigger game at his age than some of those guys had,’’ Weidenheimer said. “It’s a power game with a lot of spin. But what he doesn’t have yet is experience, so we’re getting there.’’
Williams does train frequently in Kansas City and his tournament schedule is starting to load up. His family belongs to the Cherokee Nation tribe in Oklahoma and in June, Williams will play in the Jim Thorpe Games in Oklahoma, which will bring together thousands of Native American athletes from the United States and Canada to compete in nine sports. It has been 100 years since Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
“We think Austin is on a good path,” Weidenheimer said. “The only thing that would make it a faster track is for him to be able to have more people his level to train with. Right now, he trains mostly with his coaches. Imagine a top football or basketball recruit and all he could do was drill with coaches. We need to get Austin a little bit of help so he can go train in Florida or California.”
The next couple of years will be big for Williams. He wants to play big-time Division I college tennis and go from there, and he has proven how willing he is to do whatever it takes to maximize his potential.
Think of Williams as a monster and his coaches as a collection of Dr. Frankensteins.
“You want him to get all the fundamental pieces and then send him out to test them,’’ Coad said. “Then he comes back and you do some more work before you send him out for another test.”
The goal is to make Williams the best tennis player he can be, to ultimately find his ceiling and nudge right up against it.
It’s the mystery of the process that keeps Williams plugging away.
“No one really knows how good I really can be,’’ he said. “It’s impossible to tell until it’s all said and done.’’