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 â€“ 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, Iâ€™d say.
The match certainly starts off with a high quality of play â€“ 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. â€œAre you kidding me?â€ asks Jack. I, for one, am not. Then the bigÂ Nebraskan comesÂ in on a forehand approach shot right into Denisâ€™s wheelhouse, and he busts a crosscourt forehand pass. â€œSweet!â€ says Sock. Down triple break point, Sock aces twice. At 30-40, Kudlaâ€™s in control of the point with a backhand just inside the baseline, but itâ€™s called out then overruled by the chair ump. Kudla is dumbfounded. Sock is incredulous: â€œIs that your mark?â€ 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, â€œSo unlucky. I always play so bad.â€ I think he means against Jack, and not, like, always.Â Kudla rebounds with a nice backhand volley winner for 15-all. â€œYup. Nice shot,â€ Sock says. Sock is not serving particularly well this tournament; he likes to say â€œWowâ€ a lot on missed first serves, and I now canâ€™t get the Andy Roddick comparison out of my head (thanks, Colette Lewis). Regardless, Iâ€™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 doesnâ€™t like the mark. The umpire checks the mark and agrees, calls it out. Kudla: â€œAre you serious? Just â€™cause you listen to him?â€ Jack: â€œYou know that ball was in.â€ On the next point, Sock cracks a service winner and screams, â€œCâ€™MON!!!!â€ 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 Iâ€™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 itâ€™s indecisive? â€œOh, câ€™mon,â€ Kudla says to himself, â€œMake a decision.â€ Thatâ€™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: itâ€™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: â€œFirst one of the match.â€ 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 doesnâ€™t like the mark (this is turning into more of a â€œmarkyâ€ matchup than a marquee matchup, but itâ€™s entertaining either way). â€œDonâ€™t know how you missed that,â€ offers Sock. The umpire agrees â€“ 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 â€œSocks unravelingâ€ and such, he does no such thing. Rather, itâ€™s Kudla whoâ€™s a tad harried. He fights to a break point but misses a return wide. â€œNo!!!!â€ he summarizes. At deuce, Kudla serves and volleys but the volley part doesnâ€™t go so well â€“ 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, itâ€™s all Jack. He hits a cheeky dropper that Kudla canâ€™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 Sockâ€™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 wasnâ€™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, â€œIâ€™m always learning.â€ I like that. Me too.
So, what have we learned here? Best American rivalry of the next decade? Iâ€™m not so sure. What say you?
JJ is covering the Florida swing,Â from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATPÂ World Tour 250, as for Tennis Panorama News. Be sure to follow him on twitter @Challenger10s and visit his websiteÂ Challenger Tennis which celebrates and chronicles the unsung heroes of the pro tennis world â€“ the Challenger and Futures players who grind it out each day.