The other shoppers in the Knoxville grocery store probably don’t know who she is and certainly have no idea what she is doing.
Michelle DePalmer-Williams is, from all appearances, just another mom loading the cart with milk and bread and orange juice, checking her iPhone for text messages and emails.
In truth, she is watching – and at some level, playing – a tennis match. Maybe her 21-year-old son Rhyne is playing a first-round match at the Australian Open or, most recently, winning his first main ATP Tour match at the U.S. National Indoor Championships at The Racquet Club of Memphis.
Wherever he is, she is following every point online and in the raw statistics available to her – first-serve percentage, as one example – and getting a feel for how he’s playing. It is as close as she’s going to get to seeing him play, at least for now.
“I don’t really like my family to watch,” Williams, a two-time All-American at the University of Tennessee, said after beating fellow American Steve Johnson in a first-round match at The Racquet Club. “They don’t put pressure on me, but maybe it’s in my head or I put it on myself.
“They’ve all coached me, my whole family. My grandfather (Mike DePalmer Sr.) coached at Tennessee ... my mom, my dad, my uncles, they were pros and coaches. It’s a huge tennis family and I’d just rather do it on my own, I guess.”
It’s a huge tennis family legacy. In the 1970s, Williams’ grandfather DePalmer and Nick Bollettieri founded a tennis academy in Florida – largely inspired by the potential of young Michelle – and today it’s known as IMG Academy and boasts alumni ranging from Andre Agassi and Jim Courier to Serena and Venus Williams.
Michelle was an All-American at UT and rose to No. 92 in the world until a back injury aced her career at age 21. Rhyne’s father, Bob, played at Duke and still plays well enough to hit with Rhyne. Sister Jennifer played at Division I Birmingham-Southern College and sister Caitlyn is playing at UT now. Uncle Mike, who was Top 30 on the ATP Tour, was Boris Becker’s traveling coach. And cousin Christopher Williams, another former UT player and good friend, is Rhyne’s current coach.
Ranked 159th coming into the Memphis tournament, Rhyne said: “My ultimate dream is to be Top 50 in the world.”
What he doesn’t say: He never achieved a Juniors ranking as high as his mother’s.
“I think he really wants to pass me up in the pros,” Michelle said with a laugh. “We’re kind of a competitive family, but it’s all in good fun.”
How competitive? Michelle used to get down on the floor and try to match her children push-up for push-up.
Rhyne likes to say, “I haven’t done anything yet,” but admits to modeling his game – “big serve, big forehand” – after the recently retired Andy Roddick, the last American man to win a Grand Slam. Mom said he had a poster of Roddick hanging over his bed growing up; now, Rhyne is a lot like a young Roddick.
“He wears his emotions on his sleeve; I love watching Rhyne play,” his mother said, noting she saw all his home matches at UT and juniors matches that took them to Europe and South America. “He lets you know when he’s won a point.”
The family joke: He must get it from dad.
“I was the Ice Princess,” Michelle said, although that’s not an accurate description of her emotions now. “I think I’m his biggest fan. I tell him that all the time.”
Right back at you, mom, because when Rhyne was asked how high she got in the rankings, he said, “She was like Top 80 in the world.”
It’s an ever-so-slight embellishment, just enough to remind that the son is proud of what the mother accomplished even as he strives to make his own way.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the “Jon & Don Show” on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.