Three Americans Into Semifinals at Carson USTA Women’s $50,000 Challenger

Jessica Pegula (Photo courtesy of the USTA)

By Steve Pratt

CARSON, Calif., (Friday, May 27, 2011) – It’s been quite a last couple of months for 17-year-old American tennis player Jessica Pegula.

On Feb. 22, her father Terry purchased the Buffalo Sabres NHL hockey team and soon after Pegula began working with Maria Sharapova’s former coach Michael Joyce. That pairing has helped Pegula crack the Top 400 of the WTA world rankings and has led to two consecutive quarterfinal appearances in USTA $50,000 Pro Circuit events, including this week’s Carson USTA Women’s Challenger presented by the Farmers Classic.

Although she fell to top-seeded Italian Camila Giorgi of Friday, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, Pegula said she took a lot away from her experiences this week. “I think I’m really improving and I’m right there,” said Pegula, who lost in the quarterfinals to Irina Falconi in a third-set tiebreaker at Indian Harbour three weeks ago. “I fought through some tough matches the first few rounds and that was really good for me.”I think if I would have just come forward a little bit more on a couple of points like (Giorgi) did and just got my serves in a couple of more times then I might be here talking about how I won the match instead of how I lost it. But things do always go your way.”

Also on Friday at Carson, 15-year-old qualifier Taylor Townsend of Stockbridge, Ga., beat former UCLA All-American Yasmin Schnack, 6-4, 6-4, to move on to the semifinals. On Saturday Townsend will face No. 2 seeded Alexa Glatch, who beat No. 8 seeded Chichi Scholl, 6-1, 6-1, in her quarterfinal.

The No. 2-seeded Glatch, 21, was a finalist here in 2008 losing to Mashona Washington in the final. She wants nothing more than to beat Townsend on Saturday in the semis and to get back to the final.

“This has been a great week to be out here and to get some points,” said Glatch, of Newport Beach. “We’ve had some great play by the younger USTA girls this week. I feel like a veteran out here and I’m only 21. I do feel old.”

Pegula said working with Joyce has made a ton of difference in her game the last few weeks. “I’ve improved so much since I’ve been with him,” said Pegula, who is 5-feet, 7 inches tall. “I don’t know what it is. It might be the drills. I don’t get bored with them and I’m the kind of person who gets bored easily. He doesn’t let me get bored and he makes it fun. I think also because I play so much like Maria (Sharapova). I’m a big hitter like her so it’s easier for him to be successful with me because we have such similar games. I wish I was 6-foot-2 like Maria when I’m serviing. We seem to click well which is good.”

Pegula’s father Terry is described online as a “Pennsylvania natural gas billionaire.” The Buffalo native said her father’s purchasing the Sabres in February has been a great thing for her hockey-loving family.

“I was a Pittsburgh Penguins fans first but I’ve always rooted for the Sabres,” said Pegula, adding that her mom’s parents are from Montreal and root for the Canadiens. “At one point I said, ‘Dad, why can’t you just buy the Penguins,’ but I don’t think he could ever bring himself to do that. He loves the Sabres too much and has been a huge fan for so long and doesn’t like any other teams.”

Pegula said she will likely choose to go the pro route soon instead of attending college. “I haven’t turned pro yet but I’m pretty sure I’m going to,” she said. “Given my family situation it’s not like I need the tennis scholarship like some of the girls do which is nice because I’m so lucky to have that. My parents are like, ‘yes, go for it.’ ”

She said she plans to work with Joyce in Southern California for another week and then head back to Boca to rest for a couple of weeks before another USTA $50,000 event in Boston. She hopes to get a wild card into the U.S. Open qualifying and wants to play the junior USTA National Hardcourts in August. The winner of that San Diego event receives an automatic wild card into the main draw of the U.S. Open.

For more information on the tournament log onto the website at www.usta.com/carsonchallenger.


Friday’s Quarterfinal Singles

WC: Wild card; Q: Qualifier

Taylor Townsend, U.S. [q], def. Yasmin Schnack U.S., 6-4, 6-4

Alexa Glatch, U.S. [2], def. Chichi Scholl, U.S. [8], 6-1, 6-1

Camila Giorgi, Italy, [1], def. Jessica Pegula, U.S., 5-7, 6-4, 6-4

Ashley Weinhold, U.S. [3], def. Teodora Mircic, Serbia [6], 7-6 (3), 6-2


Friday’s Semifinal Doubles

WD Alexandra Mueller, U.S., / Asia Muhammad. U.S. [4] def. Alexa Glatch, U.S. / Marie-Eve Pelletier, Canada [1], 7-6 (6), 2-6, 10-6 (super tiebreak)

Christina Fusano, U.S. [2] / Yasmin Schnack U.S., def. Macall Harkins, U.S. [3] / Teodora Mircic, Serbia, 7-5. 6-4


Saturday’s Schedule

WS: Women’s Singles; WD: Women’s Doubles

Court 4 starting at 10 a.m.

WS semis Alexa Glatch U.S. [2] vs. Taylor Townsend, U.S. [q]

Followed by WS semis Camila Giorgi, Italy, [1] vs. Ashley Weinhold, U.S. [3]

Followed by WD final Alexandra Mueller, U.S. [4] / Asia Muhammad, U.S. vs. Christina Fusano, U.S. [2] / Yasmin Schnack U.S.




On the Road with Challenger Tennis – Odesnik at USA F4 Palm Coast

Ouellette (L) falls to Odesnik (R)

PALM COAST, FL – February 3, 2011- On Thursday I pack up my Futuresmobile and head up from Vero Beach (where I’m currently stationed) to catch the USA F4 in Palm Coast, which is about a four hour drive north from where the previous three Florida Futures events have been played and is the last of the events on this Florida winter swing.

The first rounds played out over Tuesday and Wednesday with a few very surprising results. For one, USA F3 Weston champ Phillip Simmonds lost to 17-year-old Czech Jan Kuncik, ranked No. 1676 in the world, 6-3 7-6(6). Seventh seed Denis Kudla also lost a tough one, 4-6 6-4 6-7(3) to F3 dubs champ Soong-Jae Cho. All in all, it was a terrible tourney for the seeded, as only three of the top eight players advanced into the second round – (3) Matt Reid, (8) Razvan Sabau and top-seed Greg Ouellette.

It was the latter whose match I’m here to see first, as he’s paired up in a lefty battle against none other than Wayne Odesnik – making his comeback, of course, from a substance-related suspension. Wayne had lost one match to F1 eventual champion Luka Gregorc and had to retire against Nikko Madregallejo in Weston, but was otherwise undefeated on the year. I’m interested to hear how Wayne is received, and he gets a smattering of applause from the hearty assemblage of spectators. Ouellette, a bigger local fave, receives a much healthier hand for his intro, but Wayno doesn’t get shut out in that regard.

On court, however, it seems he might. Get shut out, that is. Appearing very nervous, Odesnik double faults thrice and gives up his initial service game, while Ouellette holds from 0-30 with two service winners and an ace wide. Down 2-0, Odesnik gets on the board when the top seed nets two backhands from 30-all, and then gets even as Ouellette makes four unforced groundstroke errors in the next game. Already there’ve been three over-fifteen-stroke rallies in the match.  Greg gets it to deuce on Odesnik ‘s service game at 2-all, but Odesnik is starting to settle in and rip the ball. He hits three outright forehand winners and forces two more errors off that wing to take his first lead of the set, 3-2* on serve. Ouellette is broken to 15 in the next game and gets a very strictly-enforced code violation for ball abuse – for whacking it into the net.

Though Ouellette plays a nice game to break back to 3-4, he doesn’t win another in the match. Odesnik is just in his own stratosphere, game wise; it becomes quickly apparent that Ouellette can’t do anything to consistently trouble the 25 year-old, while Wayne is hitting the ball very deep, hard and heavy – it’s a level of tennis I’ve yet to see on the Florida clay these past few weeks, for all the good ball I’ve seen. Even acknowledging that Odesnik was a Top 100 player, there was no guarantee that he’d come back match tough or be able to handle his nerve or be in this kind of form.

After the match, Odesnik tells me that he hadn’t played Greg since they were about 13 or 14 years old (they grew up in Florida juniors) and though he didn’t remember the results, he remembers always having trouble with him. “He started out well today, and conditions were a little different, so I’m glad it went my way.” I asked him to compare coming through the Futures circuit again now as opposed to when he was first coming up. “When I started out I was 16 or 17 years old, so I was still learning and I was one of the new guys. Where now, hopefully I’ll just play a couple more Futures and that’s it for me, and then I’ll go back to the  challengers and ATP events. But the court doesn’t change – there’s a court, there’s a ball and there’s an opponent, and that’s it. And that’s all I’m focused on right now.”

I hear Jack Sock “C’mon!”ing in the distance, and – since I am now officially his shadow – that cry is kind of my bat signal in the sky to go check on the 18 year-old prodigy’s progress. He’s up against a guy who’s quickly becoming something of a nemesis – the very same Soong-Jae Cho who beat Kudla in the first round here also teamed up with Hyun-Joon Kim to beat Sock and his partner Dimitar Kutrovsky in the finals of F3 doubles. And those same two teams would be meeting for a rematch later on this very day.

I join their match with Cho serving at 4-5 in the first set, and both players easily take care of their serves until the tiebreak. There things go to serve until the fifth point, when Sock comes into net on what would have been an excellent forehand approach up the line, only the net cord gets in the way and leaves him a sitting duck up there, and Cho chows down on the resultant easy pass for the mini-break. Cho forehands long to relinquish the mini-break at 4-2, but then Jack’s betrayed by the net cord again, as he’s dictating a point with his forehand and the tape catches the last one, pushing it long. Once again, Cho lets Sock back in with a backhand long at 5-4, but then Sock shanks a run-around forehand return in the breeze at 5-all and double faults at set point, earning a ball abuse warning as he smacks one out of the park.

Sock goes up an early break in the second, then has to save two break points serving at 2-1, playing a brave/foolish forehand drop shot that just clears the net for a clean winner on the penultimate point. Serving at 3-2 40-0, Sock frames a volley, misses a groundstroke and bounces a forehand into the net. “That did not bounce,” he says of Cho’s shot that led to his bouncy forehand, and he’s right. At deuce, Jack double faults and angrily whacks a ball that he inadvertently frames so it soars just over the fence and out of the court. I quickly look up to see if the chair ump is going to give a point penalty. It’s a tough call, and I see the umpire hesitate before making an “I have to do this but I don’t want to” face and announcing the point penalty for ball abuse. Game to Cho, Sock broken back. Sock argues that he didn’t mean to hit the ball over the fence, but to no avail. I later ask coach Mike Wolf what he thought about the call, and – no nonsense as ever – Wolf said Sock deserved it, and he shouldn’t have hit the ball in the first place.

Wolf’s attitude these weeks that I’ve been able to speak with him has been nothing short of refreshing. There’s no coddling of his players – he’s tough, but very fair, and also realistic about the growth curve and how this whole process is a learning experience for his guys. The more I talk to him, the more I feel that Sock is in good hands.

But back on court, Jack is in trouble again. Serving at 4-5, he double faults to start the game, then controls the entire point at 15-all with his forehand before missing a backhand volley wide. At 15-30, he hits a forehand wide, and Cho has two match points. Jack saves one with a forehand winner up the line, and Cho lets him off the hook on the other, netting a forehand. An ace out wide and an overhead later, and Sock’s snuffed out the threat. 5-all in the second.

Serves are held at love, and we’re  in a tiebreak again. I write the word “perfect” in my notes to describe each of Sock’s first two point-winning shots – one a scooped/almost-flat forehand crosscourt pass and another a drop shot for 2-0. Sock gets another handful of points with forcing forehands, an inside-in winner and serves up a little ace-T at 6-1 quintuple set point to nab the second set. An accomplished, assured and confident tie breaker from the 18-year-old.

Meanwhile, Andrea Collarini’s in trouble with the same guy who took out Simmonds in round one, Jan Kuncik.

The 6’5” 17 year-old is up 4-1 in the first. I go have a look and see it’s another lefty-lefty matchup following Ouellette-Odesnik on Court 7. Kuncik plays some huge stuff on serve and off both wings to lock up the first set 6-3.

Back to Sock: I return to find the net being unkind to Cho this time as he serves at 3-4, 15-40, the cord catching one of his approach shots and hanging it up like a pinata. Sock whacks a backhand pass up the line to break. Serving for the match at 30-15, he inside-ins a forehand wide. “That’s not smart at all, Jack,” he says (presumably to himself). I’ve begun to really enjoy this kid’s sarcasm and sense of humor. At 40-30, he juuust misses a backhand pass. “A centimeter out again!” he anguishes. I also love that he kvetches in metric. But never mind all that, Sock finally holds to take the match 6-7(5) 7-6(1) 6-3.

I get back to the Collarini-Kuncik match just in time to see the 17-year-old Czech double fault at 1-2 30-40 in the third (Andrea had taken the second set 6-4). What follows is the best set I’ve seen Collarini play – some amazing lefty-crosscourt forehand exchanges, fantastic retrieving and much better depth of shot than I’d been seeing. He races through the final frame and wins the match 3-6 6-4 6-1.

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.


On the Road with Challenger Tennis -The Decline of Weston Civilization– The Final Weekend of the USA F3 Futures

WESTON, FL – Final weekend – January 30-31

Semifinal day arrives quickly in Weston, and so does the end for the final seed left standing in the tournament, Benjamin Balleret. The fourth seed from Monaco wins the coin toss for his match against unseeded Jack Sock, but that’s about the only thing he wins on this day. Balleret, in the lime green highlighter shirt that seems all the rage of late, is not playing highlight reel stuff early – sluggish, lethargic and somewhat apathetic seeming.

By contrast, Sock is slugging away, hitting the ball crisply, and the 18-year-old races to a 3-0 first set lead. In the 4th game, there are some balls Balleret hardly moves for, but he acquits himself from no man’s land with a half-volley forehand flick, and Jack obliges with a few groundstroke errors. Benji is on the tote board! Alas, two easy Ballererrors from 30-all in the next game help Sock maintain his break advantage. At 1-4, the 4th seed forehand volleys wide then throws in two backhand errors for variety. Sock breaks for a second time with a running, flat forehand crosscourt pass from deep in the court, then serves out the set despite losing the point on another tweener First set Sock, 6-1.

Balleret retires and Sock is through to the finals, 6-1 3-0 ret.

After the match, I ask Sock if he knew what was up with Balleret, but Balleret didn’t tell him, I guess. I can only focus on the things I can control,” he says sagely. He’ll go far, that one. Certainly to the USA F3 finals. Possibly beyond.

“Jack Sock aka J Sizzle was sharp today advancing to the singles and doubles final in Weston, Florida,” Coach Mike Wolf later tweets. “Time to bring your best on the weekend.” Hmmm. About that last part, Coach…

The second semi features Phil Simmonds against his second successive Romanian, Teodor-Dacian Craciun.

At first, it appears that Teodor-Dacian is Craciun the party, as Phil is broken to 15 in the second game thanks in part to two ripping Craciun one-handed backhand passes – down the line to start the game and crosscourt to end it. The colorful 30 year-old Romanian races to an early 3-0* first set advantage.

Serving at 0-3 30-40, Phil executes a perfect ace erase out wide on break point, and holds to get on the board. It’s these little things that may not seem important at the time, that are sometimes so pivotal in the long term. Every point counts. Simmonds fighting through a tough service game here as well as a tough, deuce game at 2-5* to limit the damage to just one break pays off in the eighth game, as he comes back from 30-0 down and kicks it up a gear, with some forceful forehands, net attacking, and solid volleying. On break point, Simmonds backhand smashes a lob, which the Romanian half-volleys back, having followed his lob (kind of) to net; Simmonds races over to smack a forehand pass that Craciun volleys wide, and suddenly we’re back on serve. Easy as that.

Serving at 4-5, 30-all, Simmonds misses a first serve and decides to change racquets. Grabs another stick and eventually finds himself set point down, but a deep Simmonds-sliced backhand yields a Craciun forehand error. Down another set point, Phil wrong-foots his Romanian opponent with an off forehand winner, then closes to 5-all with a service winner and a forcing forehand.

Simmonds plays a super serve and volley at 3-2, where volley = half volley drop winner. When Craciun nets a forehand on the next point, Phil finds himself in the same 5-2* position, pointwise, that Teodor had, gamewise, in the set. What could it possibly mean?

Well, in this case, it means that the exact same thing happened, only in reverse, as Craciun comes roaring back to 5-all in the breaker (Simmonds’double fault serving at *5-4 did assist him in this process, however). On Simmonds’ first set point at 6-5*, TDC comes in on a mediocre approach shot but Simmonds nets the backhand pass. 6-all! At 6-all, with freshly changed ends, Craciun cracks a backhand long and Phil flubs a forehand volley wide on set point. 7-all. Phil forehands wide and abuses a ball to city hall. Teodor-Dacian serving at 8-7, this time he has a set point (oh, these crazy tiebreaks). But he hits an overhead over the baseline and Phil “C’MON!”s, as is the custom these days.

Simmonds has set points at *9-8, 10-9*, and *11-10 but misses them all with forehand errors. At 11-all, Simmonds puts a first ball in wide, which Craciun stretches and shanks high off a framed forehand, but it lands in, and short; Phil wisely lets the ball bounce before he completely whiffs on the overhead. Serving at 12-11, TDC tries his luck with the Phil Simmonds style of playing set points in this tiebreak so far and hits a forehand long – which definitely gets him the style point, but does not get him the actual point.

So what to do? It’s 12-all. I say we play another point of tennis. Which is just what they do, luckily, and it’s an unreal point of tennis, too: Teodor-Dacian serves and comes Craciun in to net, where he’s a smashin’ Craciun, but Simmonds tracks the overhead and hoists up a tremendous defensive lob, which – having seen Phil’s adventures at 11-all – TDC doesn’t dare hit as a bounced overhead; the Romanian opts for a groundie instead, and now Simmonds comes charging into net where he solidifies the point with a deft half volley. Inspiring stuff, no? At 13-12, Phil second serves and volleys, pushing the backhand volley wide of the doubles alley. Will this tiebreak (and/or account of this tiebreak) ever end?!

13-all. Simmonds aces wide to 14-13*. Craciun serves and volleys. Well, he serves, but Phil passes him with a down-the-line return winner. Cancel that volley. Hallelujah and praise Jeebus. Your standard, everyday 7-6(13) first set to Simmonds. No big deal, really.

In the second game of the second set, Craciun saves two break points to hold from deuce. Whole lotta twos and two-derivatives in that sentence. Then the Romanian converts on his second break point in Phil’s next service game. Coincidence? Numerology? Hell if I know. But Phil then saves double break point serving at 1-3. Craziness!

Serving at 2-4, 0-40, Simmonds is actually walking to sideline – having conceded the point and with it the double break – but TDC foils that plan by hitting into the net rather than the wide-open court. Drat! So Phil fights all the way back to deuce before the Romanian breaks a second time, with a nice lob and a Simmonds forehand long. Cruel! TDC to serve for the second set at 5-2.

Craciun, determined to make it difficult for himself, double faults twice at set point in the next game, before double faulting again at deuce and hitting a forehand drop shot that doesn’t even reach the net. Wassupwitdat? Doesn’t matter. Phil hits a poor drop shot of his own down set point in the next game, and Craciun closes in to put away a volley winner. Second set to the Romanian 6-3.

Teodor-Dacian starts off our third frame. And at 30-15, he frames a forehand At 1-all, Simmonds cashes in on his fourth break point (earned with a great forehand volley), then saves a break point of his own before consolidating to 3-1. And then Teodor-Dacian goes Craciun back to earth: he drop shots into the net and is broken again. Simmonds hits four unforced errors off the ground in the next game to be broken. Match to Simmonds 7-6(13) 3-6 6-2.

The next day I’m greeted by the jarring sights and sounds of an on-court DJ for finals day. Midtown Weston pulling out all the stops, there. Some interesting things at stake in the USA F3 Final: if Jack wins, he’ll go from ATP No. 874 to approximately 650 in the world (when Futures points are added a week later to his ranking). Not bad for a high school senior who hasn’t actually, turned pro yet, no? If Simmonds wins, he’s back in the Top 500 and – more importantly – scores his first pro victory.

A bad drop shot plus a double fault plus a netted forehand = Sock broken in the first game of the match

Then Sock fails to capitalize on four break points in the next game, netting a forehand and a backhand pass and shanking another backhand and another forehand. (2-0 to Simmonds early doors. In the third game, the 18-year-old only makes 2 of 8 first serves, with a double fault, two forehand errors and an overhead into the net contributing to a double break deficit. Who are you, and what have you done with Jack Sock?

As if in answer to that very question I’d be writing five days later, Jack gets one break back, as Phil shows that Jack’s not the only one who can stink up the joint – netting half-volleys, forehands, second serves; the whole spectrum of netted shots. You name it, he netted it. And despite only making 1 of 6 first serves, Sock holds to narrow the margin to 2-3*, and has a break point in the next game to come all the way back. But Simmonds closes him out at net, snuffs out the chance and holds.

Things go from bad to worse for sock, serving down another break point at 2-4, as he frames a ball into a courtside spectator’s head. “Ooh!” says the woman. “Sorry,” says Sock. While the woman is OK, Sock is not, as Simmonds closes him out at love with an ace, 6-2 first set.

Second verse, much the same as the first. More missed serves. More forehands into the net. And Jack is broken to start the second set. He whacks his racquet off the sole/instep of his sneak. That’ll get the clay out! And now, since I’m getting tired, I bring you the rest of this match in four glorious, self-penned Twitter updates:

Phillip Simmonds defeats Jack Sock 6-2 6-2 to win the USA F3 title in Weston, FL. Simmonds takes his pro title, aand he was so clearly thrilled to get it. “It’s feels great. I’m speechless, actually. I’m pumped. Really pumped. I’d been playing pretty well; I made quarters the first week and then semis last week, so I wanted to win this week. Obviously, I mean, you try and play to win.”

I asked him where he was going to put the trophy “I’m gonna give it to my mom. Moms love those things. Actually, maybe I’ll give it to my grandmother – one or the other. But definitely one of the ladies of the family will get it.”

Sock and Kutrovsky went on to lose what would then be their fourth final, beaten by the Korean pair of Soong-Jae Cho and Hyun-Joon Kim 6-4 6-4. But they’d meet again soon enough in Palm Coast (what was I just saying about revenge?).

Interestingly, Jack almost didn’t make it to Palm Coast. During the doubles final, I got a chance to chat with Jack’s coach, Mike Wolf, about what happened in the singles final, and he was none too thrilled about the effort he saw from his young charge that day in Weston. Wolf, a very straight shooter, told Sock that while results, win or lose, are fine, effort is non-negotiable, and that if Wolf  didn’t like Sock’s effort level in the doubles, then Sock could forget about Palm Coast and might find himself back in a classroom the next day.

JJ is covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATP  World Tour 250, 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.


On the Road with Challenger Tennis – Kudla vs. Sock in Weston

January 27, 2011 – Weston, Florida – On a beautiful sunny and mild morning on Thursday, I began the day very excited to see Jack Sock vs. Denis Kudla Part IV. Part I, of course, was their semi-classic windblown US Open juniors final, which Sock won in three sets. They met again in Pensacola USA F30 in November of last year, and Jack won a close two setter. Sock had also taken their USTA Australian Open Wildcard playoff match in Atlanta, as ably recounted here, so I was eager to see how my 2011 Challenger Tennis Player To Watch pick (Kudla) would fare in this contest. Even though Jack had been 3-0 in their previous head-to-head, I saw this as a compelling and budding rivalry – a pretty rich history of important matches for guys who are 18 years old and have yet to play a full season on the pro circuit, I’d say.

The match certainly starts off with a high quality of play – an 18-stroke rally that ends with a not-so-well-Socked drop shot into the net. Serves are held fairly easily early, even though Jack seemed frustrated with his service game.

At 2-all 40-30 with Kudla serving in the first, he comes rushing to net but biffs a half volley off a low Sockslice. Deuce. After a ten shottish rally, Kudla tags a run-around forehand long, and it looks like his feet get crossed up a bit on that one. At break point, Kudla forehands wide to give Jack a break.

With Sock serving at 4-3, Kudla cracks an inside-in forehand and then Jack backhands into the net for 0-30. “Are you kidding me?” asks Jack. I, for one, am not. Then the big Nebraskan comes in on a forehand approach shot right into Denis’s wheelhouse, and he busts a crosscourt forehand pass. “Sweet!” says Sock. Down triple break point, Sock aces twice. At 30-40, Kudla’s in control of the point with a backhand just inside the baseline, but it’s called out then overruled by the chair ump. Kudla is dumbfounded. Sock is incredulous: “Is that your mark?” he asks the chair, skeptically. Either way, Sock backhands wide on the replayed point and Denis breaks back to 4-all.

At 4-all Kudla serving at 40-30, Sock scrambles superbly, tracking down a drop shot and lob and then a forehand volley for the pass. He dominates the next rally to earn a break point, and Kudla hits a leaping backhand ingloriously into the net.

With Sock serving for the first set at 5-4, he comes into net with a nifty inside/in approach shot off a short Kudla return. Kudla loses the point and groans, “So unlucky. I always play so bad.” I think he means against Jack, and not, like, always.  Kudla rebounds with a nice backhand volley winner for 15-all. “Yup. Nice shot,” Sock says. Sock is not serving particularly well this tournament; he likes to say “Wow” a lot on missed first serves, and I now can’t get the Andy Roddick comparison out of my head (thanks, Colette Lewis). Regardless, I’m loving the intensity and animation on display in this match. Jack is a quality watch, and you should see him if you can.

At 30-15 we get intensity and animation by the bucketload. Kudla inside-ins a forcing forehand, but Sock doesn’t like the mark. The umpire checks the mark and agrees, calls it out. Kudla: “Are you serious? Just ’cause you listen to him?” Jack: “You know that ball was in.” On the next point, Sock cracks a service winner and screams, “C’MON!!!!” I can see how he rankles some, and sometimes I might be one of the rankled, but Sock is seriously good at the mental/mind games. He strives for every edge he can get on every point in every match that I’ve seen.

At 30-all with Kudla serving to start the second set, he double faults to break point. A nice inside-in approach shot with an overhead finish saves it. At deuce, Kudla dumps an indecisive forehand into the net. How do I know it’s indecisive? “Oh, c’mon,” Kudla says to himself, “Make a decision.” That’s how. Kudla comes to net again on break point, and though Jack makes him hit two overheads this time, Denis saves another one. An ace and a service game close out the game.

Serves are held, as serves sometimes are, until Kudla plays a terrible fifth game (hint: it’s 2-all). Forehand long. Backhand wide. Backhand net. Backhand wide. Here, Jack, have a break.

In the next game, Sock double faults at 30-all. He does his job for me, by noting: “First one of the match.” Truth. Down break point, Sock just bludgeons inside-out forehands to force a backhand error. An inside-in forehand winner gets him game point. Kudla hits a nice-looking forehand to seemingly nab the next point, but Sock doesn’t like the mark (this is turning into more of a “marky” matchup than a marquee matchup, but it’s entertaining either way). “Don’t know how you missed that,” offers Sock. The umpire agrees – game to Sock for 4-2.

And though the dumb, goofy writer part of me would love to be able to make idiotically obvious jokes about “Socks unraveling” and such, he does no such thing. Rather, it’s Kudla who’s a tad harried. He fights to a break point but misses a return wide. “No!!!!” he summarizes. At deuce, Kudla serves and volleys but the volley part doesn’t go so well – the high forehand volley is long. Break point again. Sock nets a forehand back to deuce. But Denis gives it away from there, much as in the fifth game. A drop shot attempt finds the net, and a double fault finds him double broken.

With two missed forehands from Kudla and an ace from Sock, it looks like the serve-out game will go smoothly for Sock, but Kudla fights back to deuce. From there, though, it’s all Jack. He hits a cheeky dropper that Kudla can’t quite track down, then closes the match with an ace. He wins 6-4 6-2. Impressive stuff.

After the match, I chatted with Sock’s coach, Mike Wolf, who seems like a great guy. I ask him about the intensity level in this match, and he tells me this wasn’t quite up to the level of their Atlanta and New York meetings. Pensacola was more laid back. I note that he writes as much as I do during matches, andWolf replies, “I’m always learning.” I like that. Me too.

So, what have we learned here? Best American rivalry of the next decade? I’m not so sure. What say you?

JJ is covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATP  World Tour 250, as 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.


On the Road with Challenger Tennis – Wild, Wild, Weston USA F3

Sunday January 23 – Tuesday, January 25

After the Tamarac finals on Sunday, I make my way over to Weston for the continuing qualifying action, and things are wilder than ever. Most matches are in their end stages, and there are many quick spectating choices to be made. I hustle as best I can over to Court 24, where two guys I watched bits of the day before – Spencer Papa and Mark Oljaca – are locked in a contentious battle. If you’re ever at the Midtown Athletic Club, by the way, I highly recommend the water from the Court 24 fountain – I’ve sampled them all, practically, and C24 H2O seems the most magically restorative.

Flashback: Oljaca, a 21-year-old, muscle-shirted battler who played for University of South Florida, had one of the more entertaining exchanges in his upset win over Czech 8th seed Martin Prikryl that I neglected to touch upon in my first update. I was a court away watching Nathaniel Gorham beat Alex Halebian, so I didn’t see what led up to the exchange, but a prickly argument with Prikryl was catching everyone’s attention. I heard Oljaca say, “After the ball hit the fence,” repeatedly, and it became relatively clear that Martin was trying to disallow one of Mark’s points, saying Mark had touched the net before the point ended (the ball hitting the fence effectively ends play, from a ruling standpoint, so he’d be allowed to touch the net once the ball either bounced twice or hit the fence).

A supervisor was summoned and both combatants pleaded their cases for what seemed like about five minutes, and was probably close to it. I have to say, I don’t envy the jobs of the officials at times like these – and they are many in Futures qualifying – when they show up after an event occurs and have to adjudicate on the spot (or, sometimes, the mark) using only the skewed assertions of each player’s (or player supporters’) arguments and reach a quick and fair conclusion. I have no idea how the ruling went down, but after Gorham’s victory I had made my way over to watch and was impressed by Oljaca’s resolve and fighting spirit.

Back to the present (in the Futures) Papa and Oljaca split sets, and the mental warfare and aggressive passive-aggressive verbal jousting is running hot – lots of heated words spoken that aren’t specifically at the opponent but certainly are meant to be heard and get into the other’s head. Oljaca wins both the mental and physical battles, overcoming a crucially botched overhead and a couple of missed forehand sitters to pull out a 3-6 6-2 7-5 win, breaking in the penultimate game.

After match point, Papa turns and screams, “SHUT UP OVER THERE!” at a boisterous foursome having a club doubles knockaround on a somewhat nearby court. One of the guys had cried out, seeming to cause Papa to lose concentration just a little bit. To the club’s credit, with so many matches to schedule, non-pro matches are kept away from the Futures play as much as is possible. But of course the noise can still inconveniently impose itself at a pivotal time in the match. That said, players at this level have long since learned to tune out anguished wails from other courts (usually from other players in the tournament), having acclimated to them in the juniors. And those who haven’t are probably doomed.

I’m pretty sure Spencer was just scapegoating the noise out of frustration over a tough loss, anyway. As any good chair ump will tell you, often they’re nothing more than a sounding board and/or lightning rod upon whom players can vent, and with all the tension of competitive tennis at any level – let alone the pros – a lot of player griping is just blowing off steam, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

I head out to watch GBR’s Jack Carpenter close out his 6-2 7-6(4) win over University of Alabama wildcard Ian Chadwell. And then I head out for good.  I’m not able to make it to Weston on Monday, so I read with a bit of disappointment that Oljaca went down 2&3 to Italy’s 14th seeded Nicola Ghedin, who then lost 4 and 3 in the main draw first round to unseeded Thomas Cazes-Carrere. So much hard work, so many great stories at this level end without any glory or fanfare. I wish I could tell all the tales, but time-space-sleep limitations being what they are, I must move on.

On Tuesday I take in some main draw first round action, and all of the first-on matches are good: Jordan Cox vs. Phillip Simmonds, [3] Catalin-Ionut Gard vs. Andrea Collarini, [4] Benjamin Balleret vs. Dan Smethurst, and Dimitar Kutrovsky vs. Dennis Zivkovic. I’m especially keen to see how USA F2 Tamarac finalist Smethurst fares against one of the top four seeds. If he plays with the same level at which I saw him play at the ‘rac, I’m sure he can win this match and go deep in the tournament.

Even though there are now chair umpires officiating the match – the day’s events still have somewhat of an anarchic feel. Zivkovic is cruising over Kutrovsky 5-0, and I see Collarini get broken at 3-all in the first set with a double fault and a run of forehand errors. Smethurst is up an early break 4-3 but down double break point. He saves one with a backhand down the line winner, but Balleret breaks back when Smethurst backhands wide on the next point.

Balleret gets burned by a perfectly struck Smetlob at 4-all and then misses off both wings and is ultimately rebroken. Smethurst serves out the first set 6-4. A great tennis enthusiast and reliable source of mine comes up to me and tells me that Smetty has broken the strings on all three of his racquets and is now playing with compatriot Ashley Hewitt’s racquet as the stringer didn’t/doesn’t arrive until 11am. Wow. I later ask Carpenter about it and he tells me, “It’s a lonnnnnng story.” Alex Ward, eating an orange, smiles politely but reveals nothing. These Brit boys know how to circle the wagons, haha.

Regardless, Smethurst struggles in the second set. He has no feel at the outset, is hesitant to pull the trigger and misfiring when he does. He’s down 2-3 15-40 and hits a nice lob reply to a drop shot to save one but nets a forehand on the next. Balleret, the player representative for this tourney (aside), holds to lead 5-2 in the second.

Meanwhile, Gard is serves for the first set against Collarini at 40-15. Collarini’s in a winning position with a deep return when a ball falls out of Gard’s pocket (doesn’t he have a pocket guard?) and they have to play a let. Next time he’ll lose the point, the ch/ump warns. Andrea recovers and gets it to deuce, but a nice serve and backhand volley off the baseline from the Romanian and a Collarini backhand lob wide results in a 6-4 first frame for the third seed.

I go check on Smethurst, expecting a third set, but he’s surprisingly fought back to level the second at five apiece. Balleret holds, and Smethurst serves at 5-6. He starts with a double fault. Not recommended. But understandable in the circumstances. Another double at 30-all gives the player rep a set point, but Smethy forehand winners, as he does, to save it. He holds with an ace to force a second set breaker. Can he win with a different racquet?

Well, no. A forehand wide at *2-3 and backhand/forehand returns long at 3-4*/3-5* give Balleret three set points. Amazingly, the man from Monte Carlo breaks a string of his own as Smethurst saves one to *4-6, but then Ben closes it out on the next.

I take a look at Simmonds and Cox, who’s serving in the first set at 5-6* (warning: temporal order of this report is skewed, despite present tense case – pretend it’s like The Time Traveler’s Wife guy reporting and you’ll have no trouble with it at all). At set point for Simmonds, he smashes a bounced defensive lob from Jordan, but JC is there and chips a forehand low; Simmonds misses the volley, and Cox hits a service winner to ad-in. Cox hits a couple of dumb drop shots, though, and he’s the first one to realize this. “STUPID!” he says. “HIT THE FREAKING BALL!” Presumably to himself, since that wouldn’t be a very nice thing to say to Phillip. Cox does hit the ball on another set point for Simmonds, but he hits the ball long and Simmonds takes the set 7-5. Cox doesn’t win another game.

I go to take a peek at the ‘hurst and Dan is down an early break 1-2*. The player rep, meanwhile, is taking a bathroom break. “Tweet that!” says Ash Hewitt. Balleret comes back and glides through the third set, and the fourth seed takes the match 4-6 7-6(4) 6-2. Dan smashes Ash’s racquet as he walks resignedly to his chair. I go for a last look at my Player to Watch, Collarini, and he’s down 1-4* to the third seed, seeming very addled indeed. Gard goes on to close out the match 6-4 4-6 6-2. Kutrovsky, meanwhile, comes back from way down, saving match points, to win 0-6 7-6(4) 6-2. It’s not the last of these kinds of antics from the Bulgarian Hammer (as doubles partner Jack Sock refers to him).

Speaking of… tune in next time for similarly stunning details of such matches as: Jack Sock vs. Denis Kudla, Hyun-Joon Kim vs. David Souto , Alexander Ward vs. Joseph Cadogan and the comeback kid Dimitar Kutrovsky vs. Todd Widom.

JJ is covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATP  World Tour 250 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.


On the Road with Challenger Tennis – The British Are Coming! USA F2 Futures Final Report From Tamarac

TAMARAC, FL – Januaary -23, 2011 -I’m not sure what Paul Revere would’ve made of the USA F2 Futures finals in Tamarac, FL, were he alive today. If he had shouted, “The British are coming!” he’d have likely been shushed ’cause – you have be quiet at the tennis. Also: We know, Paul – they’re already here in the final, in the form of Dan Smethurst and third seed Alex Bogdanovic.

The last time these two had met, in the second round of Queens Club qualies (“AEGON Championships”), the Bog Monster prowled the grass and ate his younger foe up to the tune of a 6-1 6-0 drubbing. But for this final, we’d have much different circumstances: a different year, a different surface, a different country and a different Smethurst and Bogdanovic. Coming into the final, Smethurst had been hitting the cover off the ball and was the player who’d impressed me the most all week, while Bogdanovic was still making somewhat nascent strides back following a back injury. So I suspected we’d be in for a much more competitive encounter this time around and, for once, I was actually right.

An impressive crowd of over fifty people gathered on a sunny, if cool, day to watch the Brit-on-Brit action unfold. As one who champions the events and players I feel never get enough attention for their efforts, this was very nice to see. Oftentimes the locals can’t be bothered to come out and see top-tier pro tennis, even if the price is right (i.e. free) and they live within walking distance. But it was clear that tournament director Damon Henkel, club pro Diego Ayala and office manager/press liaison extraordinaire Kristen Lake had done a superb job of getting the word out, and as a result I heard more appreciative applause for points in this match than I’ve heard during countless matches featuring Top Hundred players at ATP events or the US Open.

Happily, we were all treated to some terrific tennis. And thankfully, the match even went on at all as I almost ran over Boggo in the men’s room as I was walking briskly in and he was heading out just before warm-ups. In keeping with one of the week’s trends, the player who won the toss (Bogdanovic) elected to receive. Usually this hasn’t worked out well for the elector. But Boggo game up with two good, deep returns on the first points; and after a Smethurst-smothered forehand into net on the initial exchange, I feared that maybe lingering thoughts of Queens were still in the unseeded challenger’s head. A calm and confident point from the 20-year-old at love-15 showed me how stupid I am to conjure conclusions from just one point of tennis. Smetty closed the second point with a well-struck forehand volley, and held from there with two service winners and a missed-but-makeable forehand return from the Bogman. Smethurst, while a powerful guy, doesn’t necessarily have a serve that will blow an opponent off the court with a humongous ace count, but his delivery is strong enough to generate a decent amount of free points from service winners and short replies from which he can dictate with his forehand.

Initially, all of Bogdanovic’s serves went to Dan’s backhand. And after an almost-whiffed first return and three more misses off that wing, one certainly couldn’t argue with the strategy initially, as Boggo held to love for 1-all and didn’t lose a point in his first two service games.

In Smethy’s second service game, a stone-handed high forehand volley into the net had me again thinking of that damned Queens score (when would I learn?), but clearly I was more affected by it than Smethurst was. He pumped in an unreturned serve on the second point and then Boggo took over with his usual maddening mix of brilliant winners and head-scratching errors – one of the former, three of the latter – to help the ‘hurst get to double his total games won from their previous contest.

At 2-all, Smethurst played his best game to date, with two forehand winners and an ace up the T, and I finally (FINALLY!) stopped thinking about Queens. Go me.

At 2-3, Bogdanovic serving, Alex hit a forehand into net and a backhand wide to 0-30, then Dan decided to change things up completely with a backhand into net and a forehand wide. I still can’t decide which point-losing one-two punch I prefer. Either way: 30-all. A frankly Mr. Shankly Bogdanovic-framed forehand into orbit put the Bogman down break point. But some solid hitting yielded a Smethurst-sliced backhand long to deuce. Smethurst lucked out with a forehand net cord winner for another BP, but Boggo erased it with a nice serve out wide. They deuced it out a bit from there before two Smetted backhand errors made it 3-all. “C’mon Alec!” the woman next to me shouted encouragingly.

I don’t know if Alec was encouraged, but Alex did fairly well for the rest of the set. At 4-all, with Smethurst serving, Boggo served up a perfect drop shot/lob combo meal. I’m not sure if Smetty tweaked something running for those balls, but he came up a bit gimpy and wincy off a 0-15 double fault, appearing to favour (note: English spelling conventions will be observed for the duration of this Brit-focused article) his left leg and perhaps not able to push off on his delivery as well as he liked. Another second serve ticked long off the tape at 30-all. “30-15,” said the umpire. “Are you sure? That’s 30-40,” said Bogdanovic. “30-40,” said the umpire. And one Smetted netted backhand later, we had our first break of the match.

With Boggo serving for the set at 30-all, Smethurst was set up to crank a mid-courtish forehand into some undetermined corner of the court but dumped it into the net instead. “Fucking footwork,” he self-admonished and followed it up with little dance-like manoeuvre that I swear recalled Michael Jackson’s move by the pool table in the “Beat It” video. His leg may have been tweaked a tad, but his self-mocking movement parodies were still right up there with the legends.

On Boggo’s first set point, the 26 year-old showed catlike quickness at net, reflexing a Smethursted pass off the net cord, only to be passed overhead with a nifty Smethoisted lob. But the third seed closed out the set 6-4 with an inside-out forehand winner and an ace out wide.

The first point of the second set gave an indication of what was to come: a Smethurst-smote forehand that left one patron exclaiming, “Jesus!” It was that good, people. He closed out the game with a nicely carved backhand volley at 15-15 and a cheeky forehand drop shot at 40-15 (with an assist by a Bogdanovic-missed forehand pass).

Boggo had 40-15 serving at 0-1, but a Boghand into the net and a super Smethurst crosscourt backhand slice followed by a driven backhand down the line knotted the game at deuce. Bogdanovic pulled a forehand into the net to give his younger compatriot a break point, and Smetty took it with a deep return and an inside-out forehand winner to lead 2-0.

The Smethurst who played the second set was a Top 50 player at least. It wasn’t that Boggo was playing terribly in the second frame, it was that Dan was really damn good. He breezed through the third game with forehand and service winners. And then superb scrambling, biting slices, intelligent shot selection, deft volleys as well as the usual blunt trauma force helped him to another break in the fourth game. Bogdanovic had a game point in this service game as well, and was really fighting, but it just seemed Smethurst had an answer to anything the third seed could throw at him.

At 4-0, however, Boggo kind of “checked out” of the set. And who could blame him really?  He was being bludgeoned. So, some more smoked Smethurst winners and a few limp-looking Bogdanovic errors passed by in a blur and before you knew it, Smethurst had served the Bog Monster a bagel of his very own to eat. Having been partially undressed already in that second frame, Alex trotted off to change clothes.

Appearing to pick up where he left off, Smethurst closed out the first game of the third set with an ace and then held break point in a second game that would prove very critical for one so early. But the young Brit netted three backhands and Bogdanovic was able to narrowly avoid losing his eighth straight game.

Serving at 1-all 40-30 in the next game, Smethurst served two consecutive double faults (the dreaded quadruple fault) and stroked a forehand just wide at break point to give Boggo the gift of breakage. Though my stat sheet logs “only” five total double faults for Smethurst during the match – certainly not an appalling number for 12 service games – they twice came in the same game and both times contributed to a break of serve.

On the first point of the fourth game, Dan struck a backhand that – to my unreliable eyes – appeared to catch Boggo’s baseline but was called out. A mark was circled and checked by the ch/ump, with Alex helpfully explaining to Smethy that the only ball mark there was an out one. Smethurst didn’t look convinced. Nor was I, for that matter. But it didn’t matter what either of us thought, and Boggo went on to consolidate his break at love for a 3-1 third set advantage.

To his credit, Dan continued to really fight for the duration of the match. Though he was clearly perturbed by the call and trying to shake it out of his head, he also was efforting admirably each and every point and trying to pump himself up. The set scores of the final two frames try to indicate that one or another player went away, but neither was really the case. Despite Dan appearing to favour his left leg after striking a second serve substantially long at 15-30, he held thanks in part to two classically Smethurstian inside-in forehand winners.

Smethurst also came roaring back to deuce in the next game, with Boggo serving at 3-2 40-0, scrambling well on the fifth point and putting up another terrific Smetlob. But then a classic one-handed Boghand down the line gave him game point, and – wouldn’t you know? – a well-struck Smethurst return is called just long again, this time on the other baseline. More marks circled and pained faces made. But Bogdanovic ultimately consolidated for 4-2.

Anyway, Dan was down 0-30 for reasons you nor I will ever truly understand. But Smetty forehand winnered, then volley winnered, then service winnered – a trifecta! – to 40-30. Alas, that’s where the winning ended and the losing began. A forehand just wide to deuce, a Boggo return near the line (yet another call that went his way), and another Smethurst groundie wide found the able challenger down two breaks. He drop kicked a ball into the fence, still very much wanting the win but beaten down by missed opportunities, close calls, and solid play from the veteran at the end, as Bogdanovic closed out his service game to take the title 6-4 0-6 6-2 in a match that was just high quality from start to finish.

During the trophy presentation, both Damon and Alex rocked the mic and gave really nice speeches about the tournament.

Damon called Dan and Alex the “two nicest guys in the tournament” and Alex, likeable and sincere as ever, talked about coming back from his injury and how he wasn’t sure what the best course was for him to start the year, but that he was really glad he stayed and was able to play well in this tourney in Tamarac.

Damon then asked Boggo about his match vs. Mahut at Wimbledon (the infamous 24-22 “warm-up” to the 70-68 Isner clash) and took partial credit for the Tamarac tourneywin since he warmed Alex up on the final three days of the event. Heh.

Overall, it was a superb week at the ‘rac, and if the Weston USA F3 and Palm Coast F4 are even half as excellent as this week has been, I’ll count myself as lucky. It’s hard to imagine a better event.

JJ is covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATP  World Tour 250 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.


On the Road with Challenger Tennis – Weston Futures

WESTON, FL – January 22 – After witnessing the madness that was the Jesse Witten vs. Daniel Garza USA F2 Tamarac semi on Friday, I hightailed it over to the Midtown Athletic Club in Weston, a gorgeous and sprawling 25-court establishment located off the same lot as the Weston City Hall (which is decidedly less gorgeous and sprawling); the sign on the street literally directs you to the “City Hall/Midtown Athletic Club.” Which is a pretty convenient setup when it comes to enforcing code violations, I suppose. I thought it was strange at first, but after five days I’m starting to kind of like it. If I ever run for office now, it’ll be on a “racquet club for every city hall” platform, I think.

So tennis? Of course. A ridiculous amount of it. Sickening, even. Or maybe that was just the smell of the wet clay – hard to say. The 128 qualifying draw format employed on these USTA Pro Circuit Futures events ensures an orgy of frenzied activity in the early going. On the first days, with 64 matches, no posted court assignments, and no on-court officials, it’s as close to athletic anarchy as one could hope to find at a combination tennis club/city hall.

I catch my first recognizable player sighting, and it’s none other than Wayne Odesnik, walking back to the clubhouse, sweaty, towel around his neck. Since it’s only about 45 minutes after his match was scheduled to begin, I just assume that Odesnik took Nikki Madregallejo to the cleaners. Turned out, however, that Odesnik retired in the first set tiebreak.

I wander out near Court 23 to the player check-in and questions about court assignments. Then I complete my trek over the spacious layout and sit in the comfy grass near Court 22, where Austin Smith takes on 7th seed Joel Kielbowicz. For those who don’t remember (or never knew in the first place), it was Austin who’s credited with coming up with that infamous B-word on then-girlfriend Melanie Oudin’s sneakers during her spirited US Open run (“Believe”, by the way – I have no idea what you’re thinking). Kielbowicz is a 27 year-old four-year UNLV product with a monster serve. As there are no chair umps and players only sometimes call the score (or call it loudly enough when they do), the only way to determine where one is in a match is by checking the tennis ball scoring devices or by paying very close attention.

Smith is handling the heat from Kielbowicz, so I amble away to the opposite corner of the grounds; there, 18-year-old, 12th-seeded 1,068th-ranked Brit Jack Carpenter, semifinalist of the 2009 Eddie Herr International junior championships, is taking on unranked 19-year-old American Kurt Thein. The only other people watching the match are each player’s coach. That is, until the affable Alex Ward comes round the corner.  The 8th seed in the main draw and the funniest sub-250-followed tennis player on the twitter had seen me skulking about Tamarac for the better part of the week, and now here I am in the furthermost corner of the complex at the other place, watching his roommate play quallies. What else was there to do but point and laugh?

I pick myself up out of my comfy chair to have a chat. I plead guilty to their suspicion that, yes, I am the person who’s been tweeting every last bit of nonsense from Tamarac the past few days (although they phrase their accusation in a much friendlier fashion). I, in turn, ask Alex whether Katie O’Brien is still beating him in fantasy footy, but he insists he’s had a good week. He tells me about a race to 500 Twitter followers he’s having with another British player and I promise to aid him in his quest. Later, I send out an urgent plea to my loyal twitter minions  to start following him immediately.

Meanwhile, on court, Carpenter manages to take a come-from-behind second set and win the match in straights. I say my goodbyes and run over to catch the end bits of three other matches – Nathaniel Gorham beating Alex Halebian 7-6(5) 7-6(5), Morgan Mays ousting Serbia’s Jovan Parlic, 6-3 2-6 6-1 and Mark Oljaca upsetting eighth seed Martin Prikryl 7-5 1-6 6-3 – all of them intense and contentious at times. Guys constantly griping about “lucky bounces” from their opponents, intent on being heard, guys mocking the applause of their errors by their opponent’s handful of supporters, “Oh, yeah – that was such a great shot!”, guys anxious to let the man across the net know that none of the advantages he thinks he has are even remotely deserved. And these are matches in the second qualifying round of a Futures event, folks. No ATP points nor prize money is even on the table in these clashes.

Watching this, I’m reminded anew of why I was so bad at junior tennis – I was too easily freaked out by all the sniping and head games. The level of passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive sniping at all these matches would eat me alive, if I even had the option to play them today, Reunion Island-style. Then again, I was always better at playing complete strangers in sectional tournaments than those I knew well in local events. I’m envious of these Futures players’ competitive abilities – it’s a dog-eat-dog world on these gritty clay back courts – and, rather than think these guys are acting like jerks, I merely see them doing whatever’s needed in the moment to keep them afloat and carry them through.

It’s an odd dichotomy, though, since I tend to harshly judge the top-tier pros – like Nicolas Almagro, let’s say – who behave in this exact same fashion at the ATP level. I guess all the aggravation seems more necessary and at home in the Wild West environment of the Futures, where players are scrapping for a living, and less justifiable at a level where players are coddled and catered to. Some might argue that the stakes are higher in the ATP matches, so such behavior should be even more justified, and I wouldn’t even know how to provide a counterpoint. Suffice it to say it’s a personal preference, and I’m aware that it doesn’t jibe on a certain level.

Tune in tomorrow, when I’ll regale you with tales from the rest of qualifying, as well as main draw action.

JJ is covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATP  World Tour 250, as official media 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.


On the Road with Challenger Tennis – Tamarac Semis

TAMARA, FL – The day started off overcast, blustery and chilly as the USA F2 Tamarac 10K semifinals kicked off in the form of unseeded American qualifier Phillip Simmonds, a former Australian Open junior doubles champ, meeting the third-seeded Alex Bogdanovic, the only seed remaining in the tournament. The first semi was played, counter-intuitively enough, on Court 2, where gusts of wind blew little showers of leaves all over the court. In addition to the leaves, linespeople and ballkids also dotted the court – in some cases just as randomly – for the first time all week.

Mr. Simmonds won the toss and elected to receive. Which didn’t work out so well for the 24 year-old, as the British Boggo (not to be confused with the American Boggo, Alex Bogomolov Jr.) only paused for a few chairs to blow over on his way to a quick four-winner (three forehand, one service) hold. Boggo was rocking the inside-out forehand early, as he knocked off his third of the match on Simmonds’ first service point.

At 15-all, someone started shouting “HELLO! HELLLO!” to tournament director Damon Henkel mid-point, resulting in a netted Simmonds backhand and a sour Philface, the American as distracted at the outset as the Brit was plugged in. Three points later, Bogdanovic had broken to 2-0 on a forehand down-the-line passer.

The 26-year-old ball-striker par excellance was not leaving a single shot in his bag in the first set, throwing in an ace, a couple of successful net ventures and a nifty half-volley drop shot winner on his way to a quick 3-0 lead. Simmonds made it all the way to deuce in his next service game before he was passed by another forehand from the Bog Monster and then unceremoniously dumped a forehand into the bottom of the net (I find it’s always better to do one’s forehand dumping in a ceremonious fashion, but that’s just me).

The American deuced it up again in the next game but then netted a backhand after a 20-shot rally and promptly self-flagellated with his ball cap (and here, Phil gets it right: if you’re going to self-flagellate, by all means be prompt about it). More shots were hit, as sometimes happens in tennis matches, and before you knew it, Bogdanovic had the first set in his possession, 6-1, with no intention of ever giving it back.

Simmonds started the second set serving and held from down 0-30. See how easy that was, Phil? If only you’d elected to serve in the first place. Unforced errors crept into Bogdanovic’s game and Phil found his range to break to 2-0. With Simmonds serving at 15-all, he’s passed by a forehand crosscourt. “You know that. You know that,” he admonished himself, meaning – presumably – that he’s picked up on a passing shot pattern and should’ve moved to cover it. On the next point, he covered it. 30-all. Alas, he followed up that lesson learned with a forehand into the net and a shanked forehand long to cede the Bogback. One step forward… “Didn’t make him earn it,” Phil narrated helpfully. You know, one of the best things about reporting on tennis over other sports is a lot of players will help you along with some brutally candid self-analysis as they go. Certainly makes my job easier. Of course, Boggo uttered nary a insightful word the entire match, the cad. Now, some might say that it’s smart not to tip your opponent as to your every innermost thought, but me? I just think it’s selfish.

Back on serve, it looked like we were headed for four straight love holds at 3-all, as Simmonds served at 40-0, but then a rash of errors gave the gift of renewed brokenness to Boggo, who would now serve up 4-3 in the second.

As dejected as the American looked at the change of ends (hint: very), down a set and a break, to his credit he fired himself up again and at 30-all cut off a (predictable?) Boggo pass with an assured forehand volley and a “C’MON!” Game on. 4-all. Toward the latter portion of the match, Simmonds was getting a better read on Bogdanovic’s inside-out forehands, and sprinting to make ably defensive retrievals instead of being caught flat-footed as he was in the first set. All of which held him in better stead as he kept things even and forced a tiebreak.

From 1-all in the breaker, three forehand errors from the Brit gifted Phil an early 4-1* lead. But then the Bogman cracked a serve up the T and put away the short reply, Simmonds sliced a backhand long after a solid rally on the next point, and then netted a forehand to bring Boggo back into it at 4-all. They traded errors to 5-all, and then Simm City came netwards again to put away a forehand volley. On the subsequent set point, he came in again but this time floated his first volley to midcourt and watched helplessly as Bogdanovic flicked a boghanded pass down the line (NOT crosscourt, you see?), cool as ya like. 6-all. “Good volley,” Simmonds commented, “Good volley on set point.” My keen analyst’s ears pick up trace levels of sarcasm there.

Two points later, and we were done. A sliced Simmonds backhand into net and a forehand long did the trick. “YES! C’MON!” said the suddenly loquacious Bogdanovic, as a dejected Phil tossed his racquet into the ground. Bogdanovic advanced to the final 6-1 7-6(6). But who would he face? Well, lucky you have me to tell you these things now, aren’t you?

The next match featured the player whom I’ve found most impressive this whole tourney, the bombastic Brit Dan Smethurst against the talented ball-striker Daniel Garza of Mexico.

Smethurst won the toss and elected to receive (since that obviously worked out so well for Simmonds, you know). Garza held to 15 (told ya).

A Smethurstian smorgasbord of shots littered the stat sheet in the 20-year-old’s first service game. Inside-out forehand winner? Check. Inside-out drop shot winner? Check. Service winner up the middle? Check. Inside-in approach shot and volley winner? Sure, why not? 1-all.

Anyway, some decent tennis is playing out in front of my eyes, but I’m mostly being distracted by the words being uttered behind me: “They came from Mexico and England to play in this? I wouldn’t come from Cleveland!” “Only $1300 to win the tournament? Good thing I went into law and not tennis!” One woman had some particularly withering commentary about Smethurst, the guy who I thought had been playing so well: “His serve isn’t very reliable.” “Why doesn’t the guy play to his backhand – it’s an obvious weakness.”

All of which got us up to 4-all in the first, where Smethy got some revenge on the very naysayers he couldn’t even hear. At 30-all, Garza came in on a nice forehand approach to the Brit’s backhand side, but he sliced an intelligent reply low and Garza missed the volley. On the next point, Smethurst caressed a backhand dropper over the net to convert the break point, a smart play on clay that worked well against Garza’s deep positioning. He then closed out his serve and the set quite easily, the only further point against him a double fault. First set 6-4 to Dan S., unreliable serve and all.

In the second set, Garza tried to come forward more and force the issue in the forecourt. He had some success with it early, too, coming in a half dozen times on his first service game, saving a break point and then holding after five deuces to start things off.

At 2-all, things got all topsy-turvy-like. Garza served at 40-0 and watched a string of three straight Smethy forehand winners fly by to deuce up the game a tad. Then Dan (Smethurst variety) stuck a backhand pass off the net cord to gain break point, and on said break point was there for a forehand pass but opted to put up a lob instead. It was short, and Dan (Garza variety) overheaded it away and held for 3-2*.

The very next game, a Dan S. backhand wide, two double faults, and a missed forehand volley conspired to give Dan G. the break. The critical woman who had sat behind me might’ve felt vindicated with all the double faulting and backhand-missing, but she was long gone. And she wouldn’t have felt vindicated for long anyway.

With Garza serving at 4-2 deuce, Smet had the 25 year-old dead to rights as the Mexican man came charging towards the net behind an approach that ticked the top of the tape, sitting up nice as you like, but the Brit’s FH pass clipped the net too and carried out. The net cord giveth, and the net cord taketh away. No matter though, Garza celebrated his reprieve in questionable fashion: double faulting the break away, then whacking his racket against the back fence a few feet away from a cowering ballgirl’s head. Yikes. Survey says? Unsportsmanlike conduct code violation, warning, Mr. Garza. (For some reason, my recaps have all the ch/umps talking like they’re at Wimbledon, when they really haven’t been – it’s just that the English have taken over Tamarac, people. It’s cultural osmosis.)

Still more drama: Smethurst’s service game went from 0-30 to 40-30 to deuce, in ways you shall never learn. Smetty forehanded into the net and suddenly he’s down break point again. Service winner wide: problem solved. The next point featured the biggest moment of the day, as Garza scrambled to retrieve a Smetherhead Smash and biffed a poor lineskid in the sternum as he did so. Not intentionally, mind you, but it was a biffing nonetheless. The little bugger, who turned out to be tourney director Damon’s nephew, was really brave about it, shook it right off even as he shook the tears from his eyes. Aw. Meanwhile, Smethurst” inside-inned” a forehand on the next point to even the second set at 4-apiece.

It was all Smethy’s match from there. Passed a serve-and-volleying Garza on the first point, backhand return winner on the next, a foot-cuffing return to the feet of Garza on the third, and the Mexican had hit his limit at that point, double faulting to give the final gift of breakage to the Brit, who served it out “with aplomb.” (TM Jason Goodall) 6-4 6-4, and it will be an all-British final in Tamarac. Boggo and Smethurst have met once previously, with Alex taking Dan to the bakery/woodshed at Queens quals last June in a 1&0 thumping. But I suspect this is a very different Dan now, and what with Boggo going from his best surface to his least fave (and maybe vice versa for Smethy), I think the final will be quite competitive.

Meanwhile, I have tons to tell from my two USA F3 Weston visits, but will be saving those for a Monday post.

JJ is covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATP  World Tour 250, as official media 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.


On the Road with Challenger Tennis – Tamarac Quarterfinals

TAMARAC, FL – Januray 21 - Phillip Simmonds USA d David Souto VEN 7-6(3) 6-3: The 18-year-old Venezuelan is a big, lefty beast, more growling than grunting with every viciously topspun shot.

Unfortunately for me, my 2011 Player To Watch prospect exhibits behavior this match that is fairly beastly as well. Serving at 2-3 15-30, he ambles in to retrieve a poor Simmonds drop shot but dumps the ball into the middle of the net once he gets there. Then, for good measure, he throws his racquet into the middle of the net as well. He gets a code violation for racquet abuse, after which he mockingly intones “Warning, warning.” Simmonds closes out the break a few points later with a forehand crosscourt volley.

After the match, Souto self-destructs even more, slamming water bottles and coolers and chairs, saying “Warning, Warning, Warning” all the while and sounding like that annoying robot from Lost In Space. Perhaps the chair umpire’s name was Will Robinson too, as he gave Souto a wide buffer/berth as he warily left the court. “Danger, Will Robinson!”

[3] Alex Bogdanovic GBR d [6] Daniel Yoo KOR 6-3 6-2: The 26-year-old third seed in the spiffy pastel purple shirt serves at 0-15, the match just underway. Yoo sends one long on the second point (I thought I heard ball singing “Yoo Send Me” on its way out, too). “Love-thirty,” intones the chair ump. “What’s that?” asks Boggo. “Fifteen-all,” corrects the chair ump. Good thing for the Londoner, too, as he has to save break points before eventually holding.

Dan Smethurst GBR d [5] Nick Monroe USA 6-1 6-4: Smethurst, cruising impressively and putting away every shot in the book, comes up against his most unyielding opponents thus far on the day: Mother Nature and the Supervisor. A persistent rain begins to fall, and the Supe gives the signal to keep the players on the court even as play is halted. Smethurst begins to walk off court anyway.

“Stay on the court,” the supervisor orders, arms crossed. “I’m not going to sit there in the rain,” Smethy says, still walking, “that’s ridiculous.” “STAY ON THE COURT!” the supervisor boldly (and caps-lockedly) bellows. “Can you at least get an umbrella?” asks the player, halted in his tracks. “Get him an umbrella!” say the supe to another official, in much the same tone. And with that, the 20-year-old powers through another obstacle on the way to the semis.

Daniel Garza MEX d [2] Jesse Witten USA 6-1 2-6 6-4: At 30-all in what would turn out to be the final game of the match (SPOILER ALERT!), Witten hits a screamer of a backhand up the line that’s called out. Witten is incredulous. “That cleaned the line! That cleaned the line!” The ump comes out and circles a mark. Witten circles round the net to check it out for himself. “That’s not a ball mark! That’s a shoe mark!” He motions for the same supervisor from earlier, Peter Kasavage, to come onto the court, but Kasavage hangs back, shaking his head.

“Peter!” implores Witten, “Why can’t you just come and tell me whether that’s a ball mark or not?” Peter’s having none of it. Jesse snarks/snarls, “No wonder you guys are at Futures!” Oh boy, Jesse – that’s definitely not the way to chronicle and/or celebrate those who grind it out every day.

After the match, no fewer than five people stand around the infamous ball/shoe mark, peering down at the court and trying to make their own determinations. But I’m not fast enough with my camera, the unfolding events having already unfolded, and everybody already moving on.

And with that, I too move on to Weston for the qualies of the USA F3′s. But more on that visit in my next report.

JJ is covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATP  World Tour 250, as official media 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.