2014/04/24

On the Road with Challenger Tennis – More Tales From USA F4 Palm Coast

Odesnik defeats Craciun

PALM COAST, FL – February 4, 2011 – Friday begins as another lovely day for tennis in Palm Coast.  And by “lovely” I mean gray, overcast and cold. “Pity us, people up north,” I devilishly tweet, hoping to stir things up amongst the disgruntled folk living north of the 31st parallel. It doesn’t work. The people of the twitosphere are remarkably good at not taking my infantile bait. Either that or they’re all too buried under snow and/or their fingers are too frostbitten to text me angry but concise messages.

Anyway, it’s horrifically cold again. But we hearty folk in North Florida are undeterred, heroically playing tennis (or, even more heroically, watching it) despite the semi-frigid conditions. It’s quarterfinal day, and it’s thus time to play the quarterfinals. As sometimes happens on quarterfinal day.  And as is nearly my sworn duty at this point, I begin by chronicling the progress of Jack Sock. Today he plays the third seed, 20 year-old Aussie Matt Reid. Also playing concurrently are Andrea Collarini against the 8th seed, 33-year-old Romanian Razvan Sabau, as well as Italian Nicola Ghedin against Arkansas standout and Harvard Law deferrer Blake Strode.

Sock begins serving to Reid on Court 4, but they must’ve switched the net over from Court 3, because – as with the one during his comeback win over Soong-Jae Cho the day before – this mesh is messing with his shots, too; it carries a forehand wide at 30-40 in his first service game, and he’s broken just like that.

Though both guys struggle through some deuce holds, serves are held throughout . The scruffy blonde from Oz displays a potent forehand – biggest I’ve seen in the tournament – while Sock struggles at times with errors off the ground, even while throwing some winners in the mix.

The points usually end with a Socked winner or error – by my incomplete tally (I was checking on other matches at times), Sock hits four forehand winners and two backhand winners in the first frame, but commits 5 forehand and 7 backhand unforced errors. He does try to press the issue a bit more, successfully venturing to net a number of times. But it’s the third seed Reid who displays better consistency in the opener, with almost as many winners but not nearly as many errors.  His one break holds up, and he takes the first set 6-4.

I duck out to check in on Collarini’s progress. Or lack thereof, as I find him down two breaks, 2-5* to the 8th seeded Sabau.  The Argentinian-American gets one break back with a backhand crosscourt winner, but then the Romanian breaks him right back to take the first set 6-3. I dart on over to see Ghedin serving for the set against Strode, which the Italian wraps up at love with a drop shot and a passing shot winner, 6-4.

Back to Sock. I return to find Reid serving at 2-3 15-40 in the second. A Sock return hangs on the net and decides to stay on Sock’s side, negating the first break chance. But Sock gets a Reid on his opponent’s drop shot on the next point, sliding a forehand up the line that Matt badly botches for the break.

Sock holds from 0-30, Reid holds to 15, and Jack serves out the second set despite faking himself out with a drop-shot-to chipped-forehand-morphed-mid-stroke monstrosity at 40-15. Started the game with an ace and a service winner. Closed it with two forcing forehands. 6-3, 1 set apiece. The high school senior shot for shot with a Top 400 guy two years his elder. (That might not sound like much, by the way, but there aren’t too many high school seniors out there playing Top 400 ball.)

Meanwhile, Ghedin gets into the semis with a 6-4 6-1 win over Strode, and will play Sabau there, as the Romanian beats Collarini 6-3 6-3.

In the final frame of the Sock-Reid third set, things are definitely getting interesting. For one, Matt gets his foot caught in the fence in the corner after scrambling for a shot and is totally stuck there, snagged like an animal in a steel trap. He has to extract his foot from his shoe and then wrench his shoe out of fence. Luckily he’s not injured.

Drama on the court, too, as Sock makes three straight errors from 1-2 30-15 and is broken. Jack gets to deuce on Matt’s subsequent serve, but the Aussie consolidates to 4-1* in the third.

Down 1-4, Sock saves a break point that would have Reid serving for the match – he comes into net and smashes away the opportunity. He then holds, crucially, with an off forehand drop shot that skips off the net cord.

Though Reid seems comfortably up in this decider, more errors have crept into his game than were evident in the early stages. But this doesn’t hurt him until he serves at 4-2, when one forehand and two backhand errors lead to two back-breaking points for Sock. Jack almost crashes into a line judge, scrambling on the first, and makes a nice transition from defense to offense, only to pull an inside-in forehand wide. He atones for the error with a solid crosscourt forehand volley winner on the next, however, and we’re back on serve.

At 5-all, more backhand errors from Reid give Sock two chances to break and serve for the match. Jack misses them both with forehands into the net. “TWO forehands!” he shouts. Correct. That’s what I said, isn’t it? Reid blasts his way to a hold with some forehand and overhead winners. Then Jack blasts his way into a third set tiebreak with 3 first serves – an ace, service winner, and a setup groundie putaway before Reid forehands a passing shot long.

The decisive TB commences with a very high quality of play: Reid with a service winner to hold his service point, Sock with a forehand drop shot and a sneak-to-net forehand crosscourt volley to hold his two, then two successive service winners from the Ozzie, one on a good second delivery. “We’re sure getting our money’s worth,” says the guy next to me.

Two Reid groundstroke errors give Jack his two service points to 4-3*. Then Sock scurries to retrieve a ball, sending back a high defensive shot that lands right on the sideline, and the third seed misses to give Sock the first mini-break to 5-3*. “Ahhh, it just goes my way!” yells the Aussie, sarcastically. But he recovers with an ace to 4-5*.

With the match on his racquet, Jack nets an off forehand for 5-all. The crowd groans nearly in unison. A backhand long from the big Nebraskan, and suddenly it is going just Reid’s way. The third seed grabs the unexpected momentum shift and steels away with it, delivering a backhand volley knockout blow to seal the match 6-4 3-6 7-6(5).

I rush over to catch what looks like it might be a big upset in the making: another in the robust Romanian contingent, 30-year-old Teodor-Dacian Craciun, with what appears to be a spirited first set run against Wayne Odesnik, who pummeled the tournament’s top seed, Greg Ouellette, 6-3 6-0 in the previous round. As I get to the match, Odesnik is serving at 3-4 0-30. The 25-year-old had won their only previous meeting in three sets, so it looks like it might be another tight affair on this day. Odesnik pulls ahead to 40-30 but Craciun cracks a running forehand pass up the line to deuce it up. Wayne O. holds, but just barely.

“The Romanians coming strong in Palm Coast,” I tweet, “with Sabau thru to semis & Craciun giving Odesnik all he can handle.” At which time, Odesnik immediately breaks and reels off nine of the last ten games for a 6-4 6-1 victory. Heh. Shows what I know. As in his win over Ouellette, Odesnik is relentless, moving well, and striking the ball superbly. He earns a date with the third seed, Matt Reid, in Saturday’s semis.

I later catch up with coach Mike Wolf as he watches his top-seeded charges, Sock and Kutrovsky, play their doubles semi against Nathaniel Gorham and Benjamin Rogers.

Which they do, wrapping up a comprehensive 6-3 6-1 win over Gorham and Rogers, extending their stay for two more days.

The next installment will cover the semis and finals.

JJ is covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the ATP  World Tour Delray Beach tournament for Tennis Panorama News. Be sure to follow him on twitter @Challenger10s and visit his website  Challenger Tennis which celebrates and chronicles the unsung heroes of the pro tennis world – the Challenger and Futures players who grind it out each day.

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