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.


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 – 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.