Tim Smyczek, French Open wildcard recipient, answers our questions

In the wake of Donald Young’s Twitter outburst, Patrick McEnroe called the USTA wildcard playoffs a way to “try to send a message to our players and to everybody out there that you need to earn what you get.” No one understands earning your spot better than Tim Smyczek. The 23 year old, Wisconsin native secured his first ever spot in the main draw of a Grand Slam last August by winning a wildcard playoff for the US Open and captured a spot in the main draw of this year’s French Open when he defeated Denis Kudla and Donald Young to win the US reciprocal wildcard. Unfortunately, Donald Young’s spiteful tweet garnered most of the attention, while Smyczek was relegated to the footnotes of most articles. The USTA even held a long press conference to “set the record straight,” which focused exclusively on the Young controversy. It was easy for the real story here to get a little lost in the shuffle.

Lately, a lot of young, up and coming players have been accused of harboring a bad attitude or a sense of entitlement beyond their ranking, but you won’t find that kind of behavior from Smyczek. On the court, he seems genuinely grateful for what he’s achieved so far and is willing to put in the hard work to keep getting better. Off the court, he’s the guy next door, a friendly young man who enjoys playing golf and spending time with his fellow tennis players at home in Tampa, FL. I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with Tim before the start of the Savannah Challenger.

Currently ranked No. 175, Smyczek (pronounced SMEE-check) achieved a career high ranking earlier this year of No. 158 and reached his first ATP World Tour quarterfinal in San Jose. He also recently signed an endorsement deal with Dunlop rackets. In terms of his success so far this year, Tim told me, “it’s been kind of a process because I’ve been putting in some good work for a while now and I think, you know, just now, the last couple of months, it’s starting to pay off. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been reflected as much in my ranking. You know, I’ve had a couple of good results in some tour events and, you know, hopefully the ranking will come and keep having some good results. I’ve just been putting in the work, on and off the court, and spent a lot of time in the gym, just kind of trying to do everything I can.” The Tennis Served Fresh team got some photographic evidence of Tim’s work in the gym when they caught one of his practices in Indian Wells. It’s been a pretty steady climb up the rankings for the American, but he hasn’t quite found that one breakthrough result that will send him skyrocketing up the rankings. When I asked him about the slow process, he laughed and told me, “I sure wish it could go a little faster.” But in all seriousness, he said that, “if you’re moving the right direction the whole way, then that’s all you can ask for.” Unfortunately Tim was hampered by an injury in his first round loss to Fernando Romboli in Savannah, but what I saw was promising. At 5’9”, he may not have the ability to serve his opponent off the court, but his movement is pretty incredible. David Ferrer has done well crafting a strategy revolving around his retrieving abilities, so it can definitely be done. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Tim firmly in the Top 100 by the end of 2011.

Smyczek will have the chance to better his ranking this month when he makes his debut at the French Open, a tournament he hasn’t even attended since the juniors. The qualifying rounds at the French Open always draw a tough crowd because of the clay court specialists so Tim was relieved to receive the wildcard into the main draw. As he put it, “being an American and clay isn’t my favorite surface, and so, being able to just get into the main draw without having the…cause you know, qualifying, there’s a lot of dirtballers, a lot of really tough players on clay, so to not have to go through that, and maybe just get a chance to get a look at another one of the main draw players. It’s a good opportunity, definitely.” In order to prepare for his first appearance in Paris, Tim will fly to Nice this week and try to qualify for the Open de Nice Côte D’Azur next week. As is the case with most Americans, Tim admitted that he wasn’t the most comfortable on clay and attributed his lack of confidence on the surface to the lack of clay court tournaments in the United States; however, he also said he wouldn’t, “complain about [the lack of clay court challengers in the States] because I’m not entirely comfortable on the stuff.” The few American tournaments played on clay are mostly played on green clay, which he considers a poor substitute for the red dirt because each green clay court is so different while red clay courts share more similarities.

Tim made his first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw last year at the US Open where he drew seeded player Thomaz Bellucci in the first round. Bellucci prevailed in a tight three set encounter, 6-3 7-5 7-6 (6). You have to assume that playing in your first Grand Slam can cause some nerves, so, what did Smyczek learn from his US Open experience? Be prepared to take chances when you get them. Tim commented on the encounter, saying, “I played a guy named Bellucci, a really good player, and um, actually that match I had a couple of set points in the third and had chances, had looks at it, and uh, you know hopefully, I feel like it’s been improving ever since, so you know, hopefully now if I get looks again, maybe it’ll go a little bit different. So I’m excited about that.” Regardless of clay being Smyczek’s least favorite surface, he seems excited by the challenge present at Roland Garros.

I asked Tim to weigh in on the debate over how to award wildcards, as well as the fact that the USTA originally considered limiting the playoff opportunity to Donald Young and Ryan Harrison, which he wasn’t aware of before our discussion. He responded that it is, “definitely a good thing to have a playoff for it, whether it’s two men or six men, you know, whatever. Definitely both Donald and Ryan have had really good years so far, and so they were, you know, they deserved to be in the playoff, definitely. So, um, I guess when Ryan turned that down, that kind of just opened up a spot for me. So, it was lucky for me.” In terms of what happened during the final match in the wildcard playoffs, Tim had no idea that Donald was frustrated with the USTA during the match, saying, “he must have been complaining quietly because I didn’t even notice.”

When it comes to the controversy between Young and the USTA, Smyczek says he can see both sides. On Young’s side, he said, “I understand that, I understand his frustration, you know, cause he has had a good year and I guess, I think he just thought that he might have been…when Harrison pulled out that he would have been next in line for it.” He hadn’t gotten a chance to read about the content of the USTA conference call, but when I mentioned they were frustrated by Young’s response, he told me, “Well, I can imagine, because, you know, they have been behind Donald a lot and uh, so I can understand their frustration as well.” In general, he considered the situation unfortunate, but did not seem fazed by the publicity it received. Smyczek, who is also on Twitter, mentioned that he attended the ATP University in Miami this March, where the students were given a lecture “on social media and the correct uses and what you want to stay away from,” so don’t expect any public ranting from Tim.

Tim played five main draw World Tour matches in 2010, and has already played six to date in 2011, just under half way through the season. His goal is to be Top 100 by the US Open, gaining direct acceptance into the tournament. It will take some effort and a good run in the summer hard court tournaments, but don’t be surprised if he lands himself a spot. If you have the chance, I highly recommend taking in one of Smyczek’s matches. Win or lose, he’s truly a joy to watch.

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