(December 20, 2013) NORCROSS, Ga. – Denis Kudla and Steve Johnson are still on the outside looking in, hoping 2014 is a year their perspectives change for good.
Kudla and Johnson, both of whom spent time in the Top 100 this summer, each won their opening matches in the 2013 Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs, pocketing the first of three victories needed here to earn a wild card entry into January’s Australian Open and bypass the qualifying rounds that must be achingly familiar to both players.
Kudla, the tournament’s top seed, beat former No. 1 collegian Jarmere Jenkins, 6-4, 6-1, while No. 3 Johnson overcame 2011 French Open boys’ champion Bjorn Fratangelo, 6-3, 7-6(2). Afterwards, each player spoke on last year’s successes they’d like to repeat and the letdowns they hope to avoid.
Johnson, for instance, logged his first full season on tour in 2013 after leaving USC as one of the most decorated college tennis players ever, winning two straight NCAA singles titles and four consecutive team titles, and promptly reaching the third round of the 2012 US Open.
Last year, he qualified for the French Open then won a Challenger in Great Britain, after which he was awarded a wild card into Wimbledon. He peaked at No. 97 in early July. Following a first-round loss at this summer’s US Open, though, Johnson lost six of seven matches to end the season. His ranking has fallen to No. 156.
“I try to forget about after the Open,” Johnson laughed. “It was a tough couple-month stretch for me. I didn’t win too many matches, but, you know, that’s life. I don’t think I handled the end of the year very well. Especially it being my first year on tour, I think I let the little things really get to me, and I think that’s what led to the bad stretch up north and then to the indoor Challengers.
“That’s all behind me,” he added, “and I hope to learn from that and in this upcoming year just get to the end and really know what to do.”
Kudla, meanwhile, spent 11 weeks in the Top 100 in 2013, ascending as high as No. 90 after qualifying for both the French Open and Wimbledon – reaching the second round there – and making a quarterfinal appearance at the ATP Queen’s Club event in London.
According to the 21-year old from Arlington, Va., it was a “couple of off weeks” that he could have handled better last year to avoid sliding back to No. 114, outside the cut-off ranking for direct acceptances into Grand Slams, where he believes he belongs.
That was perhaps most evident when Kudla elected to not defend his points at the USTA Pro Circuit Challenger in Charlottesville, Va., in November — a tournament he won in 2012 — but instead played in qualifying at the ATP Masters in Paris, where he lost his first match.
“You get to a certain ranking and you get into Masters, you gotta play up. That’s how I look at it, at least,” Kudla said. “You gotta play the Masters and get to the next level. I’m not trying to be the best Challenger player. I’m trying to be the best Masters player, Grand Slam player.
“I could have had a little better consistency, for sure,” he added. “I thought I had a bad start to the year. I thought last year’s offseason I could have done a lot better, and the U.S. swing I thought should have been way better. And at the end of the year I got hurt, so I kind of just said to myself, ‘Stay healthy.’ Then I really just focused on what I did, and it was kind of a couple of off-weeks I thought I could have handled a little bit better. Hopefully I can repeat the year and do it better.”
Jenkins, who grew up a short distance away in College Park, Ga., drew comparisons to Gael Monfils from Kudla, who scrapped the strategy he employed against Jenkins when they were kids.
“I played him when I was younger, and I would just try to hit winners,” Kudla said of Jenkins, who nearly won the NCAA “triple crown” last spring at Virginia, winning the NCAA team and doubles titles and reaching the singles final. “But he’s like Monfils, he’s so fast. It’s insane. He’s an incredible athlete. So, I tried to just wear him down, tried to move him left and right. I kind of executed my game plan really well, served really well, was just able to stay on him and came out with a bit easier victory maybe than planned.”
Chase Buchanan, the 2012 NCAA doubles champion at Ohio State, fought off Rhyne Williams to earn a comeback victory, 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2, over the 2011 NCAA singles finalist from Tennessee.
Williams, ranked No. 130, served for the match at 5-4 in the second set but was broken by the No. 307-ranked Buchanan, who then won a second-set tiebreak and hit, by his estimation, five aces over the final two games of the match to close out Williams, who won last year’s Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs.
Through the fall, Buchanan has played largely outside of the United States – winning Futures titles in Bolivia and Ecuador — and playing in tournaments through South America, Japan and Thailand.
“I think it’s really good to get away from playing the same people every single week in the same places,” he said. “I think it’s good to get away, change things up. It gives you a new perspective on kind of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
Vicky Duval, several months removed from becoming an international star at the US Open by defeating 2011 champion Samantha Stosur in the first round, fell behind to Maria Sanchez in the first set at 4-1 and 5-2, crediting nerves for her slow start and her improving serve for powering her 7-5, 7-5 victory.
“My serve was never my weapon,” Duval said. “I’ve worked really hard to turn it into that, so I was happy that I could really count on it in the tough times.”
When asked if he thought was an “unknown commodity” internationally, Tennys Sandgren answered by saying, “I don’t feel like I really should be known.”
Sandgren is currently at his career-high ranking of No. 183, after finishing 2013 with his first USTA Pro Circuit Challenger title, at Champaign, Ill. On Friday, he credited his movement on court in his 6-3, 6-0 victory over Austin Krajicek.
2013 Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs
Day 1 results
No. 1 Denis Kudla d. Jarmere Jenkins, 6-4, 6-1
Chase Buchanan d. No. 2 Rhyne Williams, 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2
No. 3 Steve Johnson d. Bjorn Fratangelo, 6-3, 7-6(2)
No. 4 Tennys Sandgren d. Austin Krajicek, 6-3, 6-0
No. 1 Shelby Rogers d. Sanaz Marand, 6-4, 6-2
Sachia Vickery d. No. 2 Madison Brengle, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3
No. 3 Grace Min d. Nicole Gibbs, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5
No. 4 Victoria Duval d. Maria Sanchez, 7-5, 7-5
Order of play for December 21, 2013
DUVAL, Victoria (4) vs. ROGERS, Shelby (1)
Kudla, Denis (1) vs. SANDGREN, Tennys (4)
MIN, Grace (3) vs Vickery, Sachia (7)
JOHNSON, Steve (3) vs. BUCHANAN, Chase (7)
For updated draws, each day’s order of play and match live streaming, visit the official tournament site at www.australianwildcard.com.