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.