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Turbulent Day for American Tennis as Nine Get Ousted at Citi Open Including No. 2 Seed Stephens

DSC_89130001Sloane Stephens

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite home soil advantage, it was a rocky day for American tennis players on the grounds of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. as nine players went out in the first round of play on the men’s and women’s side.

DSC_89130001Sloane StephensIn the biggest stunner of the day, 19-year-old Sloane Stephens went down to world No. 88 Olga Puchkova in very uncharacteristic form, 7-5, 6-3. From her first service game, Stephens was broken and it continued downhill through five more breaks. She continued to send balls long and mid-way through the second set, she seemed void of energy, just standing in frustration looking to her team in the stands after errors.

But Stephens herself isn’t that worried about Monday night’s performance, citing the quick turn around from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., the differing courts and her poor practice in the days prior to her match.

“Leading up (to the match), I didn’t practice that great,” admitted Stephens. “I just wasn’t feeling the ball that well. Sometimes you just have tough days like that. Unfortunate that it came today and I couldn’t really get it together.”

Physically, she “felt fine,” even joking that “when I’m injured I play great, and then when I’m healthy I can’t hit a ball right.”

Looking forward to the US Open, she feels the home pressure is inevitable based on her recent Slam results, but chooses to focus on her game, saying “I don’t care anymore” about the buzz.

“Everyone is going to be like, ‘You should do really well here because you’ve done well in all of the Slams,’” commented Stephens. “If I lose first round, you guys, just don’t be upset.”

Earlier in the day in just his fourth tournament of the year, Mardy Fish continued his comeback on unsteady ground as he found himself down a set against Australian Matt Ebden, 6-2. He opened up the second set by winning a 22-point game, breaking Ebden three times before taking it 6-1, and closing it 6-3 in the final set.

A sober Fish arrived in press, feeling healthy and “satisfied to win,” but he admitted to being drained of energy.

“It’s a process. Fitness is a big a part of playing, and sometimes that spells trouble for me … My expectations as far as winning the tournament are pretty low. I’m just enjoying competing right now.”

2002 champion James Blake also faced a tough opponent in another fellow Aussie, Marinko Matosevic, except the end results didn’t favor the American as he went down 6-2, 7-6(6).

“I never really got any real rhythm at all on my serve, and that made all the difference in the first set,” said Blake. “I got back into the second set, and had my chances … but missed it.”

Despite the early exit, Blake still has fond memories of the tournament, and enjoys the support he gets from fans

“(Washington, D.C.) was the first tournament I ever won,” he said. “It was an unbelievable week beating one of my idols, Andre Agassi in the semis. And really fond memories of beating Paradorn Srichaphan in the final.”

So, what is next for the 33-year-old father?

“I don’t know. Right now, that’s a tough question. I don’t feel great about the way I played today. My plan has always been, play through the summer and then see where I’m at. See where my body is at, where my head’s at, how I’m feeling, how much I want to travel, how much I still enjoy it all — if my body allows me to keep going.”

Monday play also included a late night win by 21-year-old Melanie Oudin. However, seven additional Americans failed to reach the second round, including Steve Johnson, Denis Kudla, Rhyne Williams, Rajeev Ram, Christian McHale, Jessica Pegula, and Beatrice Capra.

Future Stars Earning Their Stripes: Rising Americans in Stanford and Atlanta

Ryan Harrison flexed some muscle this week in Atlanta.

Among the annual narratives of the US Open Series are the glimpses of rising American talents on both Tours.  The first week of the 2013 Series shone a spotlight on a dozen of these players in Atlanta and Stanford, small events without draws too daunting.  Some took advantage of the breathing room this week, while others allowed opportunities to escape them.

Atlanta:

Ryan Harrison:  He had not reached an ATP quarterfinal since early January, compiling barely more wins in 2013 than one could count on the figures of one hand.  But Harrison ended that drought and bolstered his sagging ranking by weathering a pair of rollercoasters against higher-ranked opponents.  He outlasted Marinko Matosevic and the fourth-seeded Igor Sijsling more from superior determination than superior tennis.  Under the Friday night lights, Harrison will face Santiago Giraldo in a rematch of an Australian Open meeting that he won comfortably.  A first career final is not inconceivable.

Christian Harrison:  Every player must remember the moment of their first victory in the main draw an ATP tournament.  For Ryan’s 19-year-old brother, that moment came in the first round of Atlanta.  While Alejandro Falla entered that match drained from last week’s Bogota finals run, Christian still showed impressive grit by battling through three tight sets to upset an opponent ranked 210 places higher.  The grit resurfaced a round later, when he fell to the top-seeded Isner by the narrowest of margins.  Christian battled a far more powerful, far more experienced opponent deep into the third set, nearly scoring a massive upset.

Jack Sock:  A quarterfinalist at Atlanta last year, Sock could not recapture his success despite his clear advantage in power over Santiago Giraldo.  This Colombian clay specialist even out-aced Sock on a hard court.  Since reaching the quarterfinals in Memphis, Sock has not advanced past the second round of any ATP tournament.  Accumulated frustration from those struggles may have contributed to his outbursts of temper in Atlanta.  Fans should remember that Sock remains a raw, unfinished talent still a few years away from fulfilling his potential.

Rhyne Williams:  Raining aces aplenty on both of his opponents, this prospect established himself as an intimidating server in the mold of many American men before him.  Williams powered past compatriot higher-ranked compatriot Denis Kudla in the first round without dropping his serve.  He threatened to spring an upset on the seventh-seeded, much more experienced Lleyton Hewitt behind another barrage of aces.  But his inexperience showed in the first-set tiebreak, which Williams lost after holding four consecutive set points and donating a costly double fault.

Denis Kudla:  The world No. 93 showed promise in North American challengers this spring and by reaching the quarterfinals at Queen’s Club.  Kudla’s modest serve left him at a critical disadvantage against a torrid Williams, so Atlanta fans could not fully appreciate his skills in other areas.  He will hope for more advantageous draws as the US Open Series continues.

Tim Smyczek:  Just behind Williams in the rankings, Smyczek earned attention at the Australian Open when he upset Ivo Karlovic and won a set from David Ferrer.  Since that promising statement, Smyczek has won just three main-draw matches at ATP tournaments.  Curiously, two of those have come against notable opponents in Fernando Verdasco and Sam Querrey.  Smyczek needs to exploit opportunities in winnable matches better than in his loss to James Blake.  At 5-5 in the third set, he could not convert break points that might have sealed the match.

Stanford:

Jamie Hampton:  Like Smyczek, Hampton emerged on the radar of observant fans in Melbourne, where she won a set from eventual champion Victoria Azarenka.  A clay upset of Petra Kvitova signaled a second peak in June, marked by a stirring run to the Eastbourne final as a qualifier.  The 23-year-old Hampton holds a seed for the first time this week.  She carried that burden with mixed results in her opener, striking over 50 winners while spraying plenty of careless errors.  A semifinal looms against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she defeated in Eastbourne.  She must clean up her game by then.

Madison Keys:  In a tale of two matches, Keys dominated eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova and then fell quietly to qualifier Vera Dushevina.  Eagerness to find a successor to the Williams sisters, which Keys could become, should not blind onlookers to the inconsistency in her results this year.  She often plays to the level of her competition, a trait common among young, raw talents, and more growing pains will lie ahead before we can rely on her as a late-week threat.  Stanford brought a dose of optimism and a dash of realism, a healthy recipe for both Keys and her fans to consume.

Christina McHale:  A once-promising talent veered off the rails when McHale fell victim last year to mononucleosis, often a death sentence for tennis careers.  The New Jersey native has time to regroup, though, for she just turned 21 in May.  McHale has advanced past the second round at only one tournament (Doha) in the last 11 months, but she has troubled top-15 opponents such as Li Na, Sara Errani, and Maria Kirilenko this year.  Still searching for confidence, she won just four games from Urszula Radwanska in the first round of Stanford.

Coco Vandeweghe:  Reaching last year’s Stanford final as a lucky loser, she qualified for the main draw this time and routed her first opponent.  The somewhat less inconsistent Sorana Cirstea then ended Vandeweghe’s bid for another breakthrough.  Back inside the top 200, the Southern California slugger wields a huge serve—and not much else.  She accomplished about as much as one could expect in the context of her year overall.

Mallory Burdette:  Unfortunate to draw Marion Bartoli in the first round last year, Burdette enjoyed only slightly better fortune by facing Francesca Schiavone in this year’s opener.  The Italian has feasted on inexperienced players like the Stanford alum, who became a full-time pro last fall.  Despite her dwindling form, Schiavone pulled away in straight sets to hand Burdette her fourth straight loss.  She will hope for less thorny draws as the US Open Series progresses.

Nicole Gibbs:  The best player in NCAA women’s tennis again received a wildcard to the tournament at her university.  Gibbs produced a result similar on paper to her Stanford appearance in 2012, when she won one match before losing the second.  But her three-set dogfight with the fourth-seeded Hampton revealed the toughness behind her gentle demeanor.  Gibbs easily could have grown disheartened after failing to serve out the second set, or after falling behind 0-4 in the third.  Her resilience in both of those situations suggested that she has the heart to succeed in the WTA, if perhaps not the weapons.

To Each Their Own: Previews of ATP Atlanta, Gstaad, and Umag

Twice a champion in Atlanta, Fish goes for the three-peat this week.

The US Open Series kicks off this week in the sweltering summer heat of Atlanta.  Perhaps uninspired by those conditions, most of the leading ATP stars have spurned that stop on the road to New York.  But Atlanta still offers glimpses of rising stars, distinctive characters, and diverse playing styles.  For those who prefer familiar names, two tournaments on European clay offer more tantalizing fare.

Atlanta:

Top half:  The march toward the final major of the year starts with a whimper more than a roar, featuring only two men on track for a US Open seed and none in the top 20.  Fresh from his exploits at home in Bogota, Alejandro Falla travels north for a meeting with Ryan Harrison’s younger brother, Christian Harrison.  The winner of that match would face top seed John Isner, a former finalist in Atlanta.  Isner, who once spearheaded the University of Georgia tennis team, can expect fervent support as he attempts to master the conditions.  He towers over a section where the long goodbye of James Blake and the rise of Russian hope Evgeny Donskoy might collide.

Atlanta features plenty of young talent up and down its draw, not all of it American.  Two wildcards from the host nation will vie for a berth in the second round, both Denis Kudla and Rhyne Williams having shown flashes of promise.  On the other hand, Ricardas Berankis has shown more than just flashes of promise.  Destined for a clash with third seed Ivan Dodig, the compact Latvian combines a deceptively powerful serve with smooth touch and a pinpoint two-handed backhand.  His best result so far came on American soil last year, a runner-up appearance in Los Angeles.  Berankis will struggle to echo that feat in a section that includes Lleyton Hewitt.  A strong summer on grass, including a recent final in Newport, has infused the former US Open champion with plenty of momentum.

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

Bottom half:  The older and more famous Harrison finds himself in a relatively soft section, important for a player who has reached just one quarterfinal in the last twelve months.  Ryan Harrison’s disturbingly long slump included a first-round loss in Atlanta last year, something that he will look to avoid against Australian No. 3 Marinko Matosevic.  Nearby looms Nebraska native Jack Sock, more explosive but also less reliable.  The draw has placed Sock on a collision course with returning veteran Mardy Fish, the sixth seed and twice an Atlanta champion.  Fish has played just one ATP tournament this year, Indian Wells, as he copes with physical issues.  Less intriguing is fourth seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon but has not sustained consistency long enough to impress.

Bombing their way through the Bogota draw last week, Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson enjoyed that tournament’s altitude.  They squared off in a three-set semifinal on Saturday but would meet as early as the second round in Atlanta.  Few of the other names in this section jump out at first glance, so one of the Americans in the section above might need to cope with not just the mind-melting heat but a mind-melting serve.

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

Top half:  As fellow blogger Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) observed, Roger Federer should feel grateful to see neither Sergei Stakhovsky nor Federico Delbonis in his half of the draw.  Those last two nemeses of his will inspire other underdogs against the Swiss star in the weeks ahead, though.  Second-round opponent Daniel Brands needs little inspiration from others, for he won the first set from Federer in Hamburg last week.  Adjusting to his new racket, Federer will fancy his chances against the slow-footed Victor Hanescu if they meet in a quarterfinal.  But Roberto Bautista Agut has played some eye-opening tennis recently, including a strong effort against David Ferrer at Wimbledon.

A season of disappointments continued for fourth seed Juan Monaco last week when he fell well short of defending his Hamburg title.  The path looks a little easier for him at this lesser tournament, where relatively few clay specialists lurk in his half.  Madrid surprise semifinalist Pablo Andujar has not accomplished much of note since then, and sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny lost his first match in Hamburg.  Youzhny also lost his only previous meeting with Monaco, who may have more to fear from Bucharest finalist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round.

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

Bottom half:  Welcome to the land of the giant-killers, spearheaded by seventh seed Lukas Rosol.  Gone early in Hamburg, Rosol did win the first title of his career on clay this spring.  But the surface seems poorly suited to his all-or-nothing style, and Marcel Granollers should have the patience to outlast him.  The aforementioned Federico Delbonis faces an intriguing start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who can shine on clay when healthy (not recently true) and disciplined (rarely true).  Two of the ATP’s more notable headcases could collide as well.  The reeling Janko Tipsarevic seeks to regain a modicum of confidence against Robin Haase, who set the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost this year.

That other Federer-killer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, can look forward to a battle of similar styles against fellow serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez.  Neither man thrives on clay, so second seed Stanislas Wawrinka should advance comfortably through this section.  Unexpectedly reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Kenny de Schepper looks to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder.  Other than Wawrinka, the strongest clay credentials in this section belong to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

Top half:  Historically less than imposing in the role of the favorite, Richard Gasquet holds that role as the only top-20 man in the draw.  He cannot count on too easy a route despite his ranking, for Nice champion Albert Montanes could await in his opener and resurgent compatriot Gael Monfils a round later.  Gasquet has not played a single clay tournament this year below the Masters 1000 level, so his entry in Umag surprises.  The presence of those players makes more sense, considering the clay expertise of Montanes and the cheap points available for Monfils to rebuild his ranking.  Nearly able to upset Federer in Hamburg last week, seventh seed Florian Mayer will hope to make those points less cheap than Monfils expects.

In pursuit of his third straight title, Fabio Fognini sweeps from Stuttgart and Hamburg south to Gstaad.  This surprise story of the month will write its next chapter against men less dangerous on clay, such as  recent Berdych nemesis Thiemo de Bakker.  An exception to that trend, Albert Ramos has reached two clay quarterfinals this year.  Martin Klizan, Fognini’s main threat, prefers hard courts despite winning a set from Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

Bottom half:  Although he shone on clay at Roland Garros, Tommy Robredo could not recapture his mastery on the surface when he returned there after Wimbledon.  Early exits in each of the last two weeks leave him searching for answers as the fifth seed in Bastad.  A clash of steadiness against stylishness awaits in the quarterfinals if Robredo meets Alexandr Dolgopolov there.  The mercurial Dolgopolov has regressed this year from a breakthrough season in 2012.

The surprise champion in Bastad, Carlos Berlocq, may regret a draw that places him near compatriot Horacio Zeballos.  While he defeated Berlocq in Vina del Mar this February, Zeballos has won only a handful of matches since upsetting Nadal there.  Neither Argentine bore heavy expectations to start the season, unlike second seed Andreas Seppi.  On his best surface, Seppi has a losing record this year with first-round losses at six of eight clay tournaments.

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

In Photos: Wimbledon Qualies Days Two and Three

Denis Kudla hits a "tweener" on Day 3 of Wimbledon men's qualifying

(June 19, 2013) Action from around the grounds for days two and three of Wimbledon qualifying include Vania King, Denis Kudla, Irina Falconi, Maria Sanchez, Caroline Garcia, Samantha Crawford, James Duckworth, Bobby Reynolds, Naomi Broady and many more.

Americans Harrison, Smyczek, Kudla Book Semifinal Spots at Tallahassee Tennis Challenger

Tim Smyczek (copyright: Tallahassee Tennis Challenger)

TALLAHASSEE, FL, May 2, 2013 – The red, white and blue rolled on Thursday at the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger.

No. 2 seed Ryan Harrison played some of his best tennis of the week at the $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit event, beating fellow American Donald Young 7-6 (5), 6-4 to book a place in the semifinals at Forestmeadows Tennis Complex.

Harrison is joined by two other Americans – No. 7 seed Denis Kudla and defending champion Tim Smyczek – as well as Cedrik-Marcel Stebe of Germany in the semifinals.

Alex Kuznetsov, who earned the Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge birth in the French Open Wednesday, retired in his evening match against Smyczek, a close friend, with a shoulder injury. The No. 5 seed Smyczek was leading 6-4.

The day, however, was all about Harrison, who gave a spirited fist pump following a back-and-forth battle with Young, who won this title in 2011.

“The biggest thing I was trying to do was just stay calm, stay focused, and keep after it,” Harrison said of his win. “We’re both young, American, and have played a few matches against each other; so there was a little bit of competitiveness going on. I would say it was a tough win.”

It was a tough win for Kudla, who took down Facundo Arguello of Argentina 7-6 (3), 6-4. Arguello has been hot during the last few weeks, winning seven of nine matches leading up to Thursday.

The Cinderella story of the tournament has been Stebe, who as an unseeded player has won three straight matches to book his place in the semifinals. The German beat 2012 finalist Frank Dancevic 6-4, 6-3 to earn the right to play Smyczek.

In doubles, the American duo of Sekou Bangora and Reid Carleton were winners over Takura Happy and Salif Kante of Florida A&M University, booking a semifinal spot. They’ll be joined by Greg Jones and Peter Polansky, who beat former Florida State University standouts Jean-Yves Abone and Vahid Mirzadeh in the evening session.

Harrison, the world No. 81, is looking for his ninth straight win after capturing the Savannah title last week. The 20 year old won eight in a row in 2009 at a futures event then a challenger in California.

“I came out today, and I was ready to play. I feel a lot more energetic,” said Harrison, who has been as high as No. 43 in the world. “This is my eighth straight match win. The biggest thing I have to focus on is just tomorrow. You can’t think about the finals or two more before you get through the next one. I’ve played Dennis before. He’s tough, he’s a great competitor, and he’s playing well. I’m excited about the match, and that what I’m going to be focusing on.”

Harrison and Kudla will play their semifinal during the evening session, following doubles at 6 pm. Smyczek and Stebe are set for an afternoon tussle.

RESULTS – MAY 2, 2013

Singles – Quarterfinals
[2] Ryan Harrison, United States, def. Donald Young, United States, 7-6 (5), 6-4
[5] Tim Smyczek, United States, def. Alex Kuznetsov, United States, 6-4, Ret.
[7] Denis Kudla, United States, def. Facundo Arguello, Argentina, 7-6 (3), 6-4
Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, Germany, def. Frank Dancevic, Canada, 6-4, 6-3

Doubles – Quarterfinals
Sekou Bangoura and Reid Carleton, United States, def. [WC] Takura Happy, Senegal, and Salif Kante, Senegal, 6-3, 6-2
Greg Jones, Australia, and Peter Polansky, Canada, def. Jean-Yves Aubone and Vahid Mirzadeh, United States, 6-3, 6-4

Daily updates on this tournament can be found at www.procircuit.usta.com and www.tallahasseechallenger.com. Live streaming is also available on www.procircuit.usta.com. The tournament can be followed on Facebook at “USTA Tallahassee Tennis Challenger” and on Twitter @TallyChallenger or by using the #TallyChallenger hashtag.

The tournament is part of the Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge and can be followed on Twitter at #USTAHarTruWC and www.USTAHarTruWC.com.

Getting to know the next generation in American tennis: Querrey, Harrison, Kudla, Sock, Williams

US Men's tennis Querrey Sock Harrison Kudla

By Romi Cvitkovic

With Andy Roddick’s mid-season retirement, John Isner’s recent slump and Mardy Fish’s ensuing health issues, the 2012 tennis season has been tough on American tennis fans. The constant background noise regarding the decline in quality and quantity of players coming out of the U.S. in recent years is, in fact, just that – noise.

With 19 American ATP players in the top 200, the U.S. field deserves more credit than it receives. Well-lauded tennis powerhouses Spain and France boast 20 and 18 players in the top 200, respectively, yet the U.S. with 19 is somehow not stacking up to the competition? Clearly, perspective needs to be reevaluated here.

The U.S. boasts their deepest men’s field in three years, and thanks to the Challenger Tour, four of these players even reached career-high rankings this past week making the start to the 2013 season all the more energizing.

We’ll take a look at the U.S. players on the verge of breakthrough in 2013, in order of their current ranking: Sam Querrey, Ryan Harrison, Tim Smyczek, Denis Kudla, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Rhyne Williams.

Sam Querrey

Currently ranked 22 and just five spots from his career-high, many would say reaching top 25 is a breakthrough already. But not for Querrey, who, after returning from elbow surgery and a rare umbilical cord infection, has shot up the rankings after having fallen out of the top 100 as recently as April. He capped off his season by beating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Paris just last month, and his confidence is running high going into the off-season.

With 1295 of his 1650 season ranking points coming from June on, Querrey has all of 355 points to defend in the first five month of 2013. If he reaches just one 500-level tournament final during the Australian or U.S. spring hard court season (a prize bag of 300 points), he would be nearly there ranking-wise with only that.

After admitting he had “no motivation” to win back in 2010, Querrey has recommitted himself this year and just last week told ESPN reporter Ravi Ubha that “it would mean a lot” to become the top ranked American player on his own accord: “I want to do it off of my good results, by going deep at the Masters events and Slams, not off the other guys not doing well. I don’t want to be the U.S. No. 1 ranked 22nd because other guys fell off in the rankings.”

Ryan Harrison

Welcoming himself to the tennis world last year, Harrison took David Ferrer to five sets in the second round of Wimbledon and then followed that up with back-to-back semifinal runs in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Many were eager to see him breakthrough in 2012, but he fell terribly short.

After finishing 2009 ranked 360, 2010 ranked 173, and 2011 ranked 79, Harrison shot up to world No. 43 in July of this year but has since quickly fallen to end the season ranked 69. His mediocre results are perplexing as his game holds immense weapons that could drive him into the top 20. So what is holding him back?

While charming and thoughtful in interviews, he can quickly snap on court and reveal a heated temper – something that today’s tennis fans don’t always agree with. Physically well-developed, the 20-year-old is notorious for going through more than his share of coaches. In the past 20 months, Harrison has gone through four coaches and has yet to find a stabilizing force.

A product of the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida, Ryan’s first full-time “mentor” (as his father coach Pat Harrison called him at the time) was newly-retired doubles specialist and IMG teaching pro Martin Damm. After only seven months together, Ryan moved on to coach Scott McCain who was having great results with Somdev Devvarman. The one catch was that McCain was coaching both players at the same time and couldn’t devote the time Harrison needed. McCain recommended that Harrison work with Grant Doyle who had his own successful tennis academy in Texas. Although that partnership lasted the longest – a full season – the results did not follow.

Speaking bluntly, for a player as supposedly rattled with meltdowns and quick coaching changes as Harrison to hold onto a coach for a full season with minimal results takes an immense amount of patience. He has now teamed up with Tres Davis of the Austin Tennis Academy and we’ll see not only how that relationship holds up, but whether this younger coach can find Ryan’s tennis “voice”. The weapons are there, and perhaps Harrison just needed a year to get his footing on the ATP Tour, but now, it’s just a matter of having the right combination going into the new year and posting some big upsets.

Tim Smyczek

Wisconsin native Smyczek may not fit the current mold of top American tennis players: giants with booming serves and forehands. But at 5’9” he has defied physical trends and reached his career-high ranking of 128 this past week by winning the Champaign, Ill. Challenger. He began the year ranked 273, and while no breakthrough runs occurred this season, he’s had consistent outcomes: always bettering the previous week’s results – a stark contrast to his poor 2011 results.

While his best wins have come at the Challenger-level this year, his ranking is now high enough to bypass many tour-level qualifying draws and grant him main draw access. He’s had success playing through weekly qualifying draws in the past, only to get caught not being fresh enough for main draw play. That should change at the start of 2013 with San Jose, Memphis and Delray Beach where he could make some nice runs early on.

Denis Kudla

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJo9Jixl0gI&w=250]

One of the youngest in the top 200 and quite willing to indulge reporters on video (see video at right), Kudla’s on court sense is even more refreshing as his all-court game and mentality keep him grounded. At just 20-years-old, the Ukranian-born Virginian has won two Challengers since July and is sitting at a career-high ranking of 137. Earlier this year in San Jose, he even took Andy Roddick to three sets – including two tiebreakers – so a changing of the guards may very well lie in his hands in the next couple of years.

Physically lean and quick on-court, Kudla is another player who opted against college and decided to turn pro straight out of high school. The one difference between Kudla and Smyczek though, is that Kudla is four years younger and at nearly the same ranking as Smyczek – quite telling of his talent. And as a former world No. 3 junior player, Kudla knows a great deal about winning.

I had a chance to briefly chat with Kudla’s parents last year at their son’s old stomping ground, the USTA Regional Training Center in College Park, MD. Although many players have supportive family members, Kudla’s parents seem like unique advocates: his father is a proud no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to Denis’ training, while his mother is cheerful and optimistic any time she speaks about her son and his future. Add USTA coach and clay court specialist Diego Moyano to his budding team, and you have a winning combination. Kudla’s poorest results come on this surface, so a strategic relationship with Moyano, the former coach of Fernando Gonzalez and Guillermo Coria, may be just what he needs to kick it up a notch next season.

Jack Sock

The name “Jack Sock” has been thrown around in tennis circles for over a year now and with good reason. Sock went undefeated in high school, opted out of college for the pro tour, went on to win the 2011 U.S. Open Mixed Doubles Championship with Melanie Oudin only months after graduating high school and has been a solid force on the Challengers circuit ever since, with memorable appearances in tour-level tournaments such as this year’s third round run at the U.S. Open.

At 6’2” and 162 pounds, Sock has grown into his body and game, and after an injury earlier this year, he is set to take 2013 by storm. Never having played a pro tournament outside of North America, Sock will make his way to Australia in January after a rigorous off-season. He started 2012 ranked 380 and playing Futures tournaments, so nearly any result in Australia will bump up his current career-high ranking of 137.

If he can lean up a bit and shed the few extra pounds he put on during his injury lay-off, Sock’s speed will turn into a strength instead of a liability. His rocket serve and forehand will then nicely complement his new agility, and the rest as they say, would be history.

Out of all the Americans on this list, I expect to see the biggest rankings jump from Sock next year given his crafty and powerful game, and don’t be surprised if he has a few tour-level final appearances or titles. (For an exclusive interview I did with Sock last month discussing his injury, goals and off-season plans, check out the USA Today article here.)

Steve Johnson

Johnson stands as the only player on this list to graduate from college – a telling aspect consistent with his character. While some players feel ready to transition into the pros after only two years of college play, Johnson took his time to develop in the NCAAs winning 72 straight matches and back-to-back NCAA Championships.

After graduating from the University of Southern California this past spring, Johnson started playing pro tournaments in July and notched his first Challenger title in Aptos in August without dropping a set. By winning the 2012 NCAA Championships, he was awarded a wildcard entry into the U.S. Open a couple of weeks after Aptos, and boy, did he capitalize. He lost to world No. 14 Richard Gasquet in the third round but not before taking home $65,000 in winnings and jump starting his pro career.

For the first six months of 2013, Johnson will have ZERO points to defend from 2012, as he only had two first round losses in Honolulu and San Jose while still in college. Talk about an advantage for the new season.

Rhyne Williams

Tennessee native Williams comes from a tennis family and won his first pro tournament at just 16 years of age. He possesses a surprisingly cunning serve and an accurate forehand that could consistently paint the lines, and Williams decided to attend the University of Tennessee to further develop both his skills and his mental game.

Since turning pro after playing college tennis for two years, Williams has had a steady climb up the rankings ladder, reaching a career-high of 190 this week after reaching the quarterfinals or better on his last four Challenger tournaments. What used to be his liability – his vocal self-deprecating comments on-court when down – has turned into a weapon most of the time. Now, instead of talking his way out of match through a loss, he successfully channels his anger toward a win. Sure, there are still slip-ups when he gets unnecessarily down on himself and doesn’t believe he can win through grit (we are always our own worst enemies on court), but they are rarer and far in between. And his on-court demeanor otherwise is infused with candor and smiles – especially during doubles with good friend Tennys Sandgren.

The first two full months of 2012 (when Williams was ranked 511 in the world) were spent playing Futures tournaments and scrounging for points. If he continues to build confidence in his beautifully-crafted game, and after a rigorous off-season training block in Florida this winter, the start to his 2013 can hold a great deal of hope for his entire year. Add to that the support of his cousin and former Tennessee Vols player and coach, Chris Williams, who travels with him, and he just may continue believing in his strengths and game even more.

Don’t forget to catch the Australian Open Wildcard Playoff next month in Atlanta as Denis Kudla, Steve Johnson and Rhyne Williams have all been invited for a shot to win a main draw wildcard into the 2013 Australian Open in January.

Denis Kudla reflects on young career, sets sights for top 50 (exclusive interview)

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG7JWOGsyUE&w=560&h=315]

By Kelyn Soong

Denis Kudla may not be a household name in tennis, but he has made significant strides in his three years on the pro tour.

At only 19 years old, Kudla is third youngest player in the top 200 of ATP World Tour rankings.

He is currently ranked world No. 177 and has a career high of No. 168.

This year, Kudla played in his first Grand Slam main draw match in Australia (losing in four sets to Tommy Haas), was one game away from beating Andy Roddick in the second round at the SAP Open and got the opportunity to play one of his idols, Roger Federer, in the second round at Indian Wells.

“My professional career so far has been pretty successful,” Kudla said. “I got through the rankings pretty quick…As long as I keep improving, I’m pretty happy with everything.”

Kudla has wanted to a professional tennis player for as long as he could remember, and he has enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle that comes with the profession.

“Life on tour is pretty good, it’s a different lifestyle,” Kudla said. “You’re traveling every single week – I don’t think I’ve been in the same place for more than 10 days. It’s tough, but I enjoy it. You’re in a different hotel every week, you get to travel the world, new food – it’s the lifestyle I chose.”

After all the traveling, Kudla had time to return to the Washington, D.C. area for a few weeks after his failed bid to reach the Wimbledon main draw.

The Arlington, Va. native practiced and trained with his old coaches and hitting partners at the Tennis Center in College Park in preparation for his next tournament in Newport, RI, which starts July 9.

The tournament holds a special place for Kudla, who recorded his first ATP World Tour win there just a year ago.

As for his future goals, Kudla is setting his sights for a big year.

“In this time next year I want to be potentially top 50,” he said. “I don’t want to give myself too many ranking goals now – I realize that’s maybe not the best way to look at yourself and improving. I just want to be keep being successful, try to make a run at an ATP title and keep improving, and I think everything will come along.”

From Grassroots to Boardrooms: Ray Benton is a Statesman for the Game

TCCP/JTCC Chief Ray Benton ©Steve Fogleman


by Steve Fogleman, Special for Tennis Grandstand

When I arrived at the Tennis Center at College Park to speak with its CEO, Ray Benton, he was finishing up a lesson with former U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman. He’d agreed to speak with me after the practice and he was still stretching when our conversation began. I admit that at first I was bemused by the notion of a crossroads of politics and tennis. You don’t see that every day. But for tennis statesman Ray Benton, it was business as usual. He’s as comfortable on court with children as he is in the halls of power in Washington. Legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to repeatedly insist that all “politics is local”. Witnessing the VIP lessons he’s giving and the expansive, state-of-the-art tennis training facility he’s managing (largely funded by the former Chairman of the US Export-Import Bank), you realize that Benton is the embodiment of O’Neill’s mantra. Benton’s career arc has taken him from local to national to international and now, to some degree, back to local tennis. With that breadth of experience, he brings with him the uncanny ability to cultivate a major-league presence even in the deepest of grassroots tennis.

His office substantially resembles the International Tennis Hall of Fame in miniature. The walls of his paper-piled workspace are adorned with posters and photos from tennis events from the last forty years. With all of his energy, it is difficult to believe he is 71. He still competes in senior tournaments “when my body’s working”, he said.

Benton is an Iowa native who moved to Washington in 1971. He started playing the game at 15 and “really took to it right away”. Later, he spent two years with the Iowa Hawkeye team in Big Ten play. While attending college, law school and a year of business school, he worked in the summer as the tennis pro at Dubuque Country Club in Dubuque, Iowa. He was brought in to start a tennis program at a “golf wacko club where tennis was a nuisance”. It had “two broken-down courts and 35 tennis playing club members”. He was up for the challenge, and within a few years, Benton had installed six lighted courts, attracted 500 players and even trained 20 state-ranked juniors there. “That’s when I figured out maybe I should be in the business”.

Even after he was drafted and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama in 1966, he managed to stay active in the game, serving as head pro at the Gadsden and Anniston Country Clubs and varsity coach for Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He then spent a couple of years in Colorado running that state’s Youth Tennis Foundation and putting on professional events before Washington called. Then, Benton’s call to DC came to Denver. Through Dubuque.

“As I was finishing business school, a guy I knew from Dubuque had hit it big, Bob Lange. He invented the plastic ski boot. I went into business with him to develop the first plastic tennis racquet. We had a prototype and I suggested that we have a tournament in Denver. And in order to get any American players there, I had to talk to the Davis Cup captain named Donald Dell. We worked together and a year later, I moved here.”

Dell was looking for partners in a law firm that would eventually morph into sports management company ProServ years later. During his early days in Washington, he also served as the first National Executive Director of the National Junior Tennis League.

From DC, the firm represented big names in tennis like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Tracy Austin. They also managed top athletes throughout the world of sport, including Michael Jordan, Boomer Esiason, Dave Winfield and Payne Stewart. Yet the firm’s focus stuck with tennis for an important reason.

Mark McCormick started IMG and based it around golf and Donald started ProServ around tennis. After all, he was the Davis Cup captain and Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were on his team.

As a law firm, we couldn’t solicit clients. We could write a letter to a company saying ‘I’m writing on behalf of Arthur Ashe to see if you might have interest’. We couldn’t put out a promotional brochure for Arthur, so we started the company Proserv. It was an affiliated marketing company to the law firm. When our firm split in ’83, Donald and I kept the name ProServ and made it the major identity.

During the nineties, Benton founded the Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit. He secured more than $35 million in corporate sponsorships at a time when interest in tennis had started to wane. He also saw the events as more than a tournament, but an “entertainment event” with theme nights, contests and celebrity matches.

After spending most of the last decade doing marketing consulting for clients like the ATP, the PGA, the Vic Braden Tennis Academy and national mentoring advocacy group MENTOR, he was hired as the CEO of the Tennis Center at College Park. Once again, politics and tennis intersected, as banker and Clinton Administration appointee Kenneth Brody needed someone to market the tennis facility he had built in College Park. And he went straight to Benton to market it.

So, now that this writer knows he’s talking to the right person for the question, is DC a tennis town?

It is, but it needs to regain the stature it once had, and not only Washington, but many other area of the country. Tennis is totally a bottom-up sport. The great majority of energy comes from the grassroots. And that’s what advances tournament play, pro play, collegiate play. Frankly, I think we got lazy in this sport. We had so much momentum, so much success and great stars and I think the leaders of tennis, everyone became deluded that tennis was driven by Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. And the fact of the matter is in the days of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, participation in tennis in the United States decreased. We didn’t develop the next generation of Nick Bollettieris, of Vic Bradens or Dennis Van Der Meer or Peter Burwash. Who are the biggest names of teaching pros these days? Still those guys. If I asked you that same question 35 years ago, you’d have the same answer.

Benton’s approach to bringing the game back is simple. “A kid should be introduced to tennis the same way they should be introduced to basketball, which is they should have fun, be on a team, and compete the first day. And then they get hooked on the fun. And when they improve, then you offer them instruction. How many kids would play basketball if they were required to take three weeks of dribbling lessons and two weeks of shooting lessons before they were allowed to play the game? You’d have a lot fewer basketball players, wouldn’t you?”

He’s already building JTCC for the future. “You need leadership from the bottom. We’re going into schools now. We have a program called “Game On”. We’re trying to spread this game as far and wide as we can. We’re working with Prince George’s County Parks. We’ll have five sites in the summer. I see a lot more highly-ranked kids. I see a lot more inner city stuff. Five years from now, I see a much larger percentage of our kids coming from the inner city. I see considerable expansion here. We can expand. We’ve got room.”

As far as accolades the Tennis Center and the Junior Tennis Champions Center have received recently, he’s not wasting any time basking in the glory. “Attention is fine, but substance is what counts. We were very under marketed when I got here. There’s no question about that. One of the main reasons to get your name out is to attract the best athletes and do fundraising, because we’re a non-profit. We depend on it.”

Benton is audibly proud of the hundreds of kids who have been a part of the program. When he talks about the JTCC talent, it’s as if he is the proud grandfather of all of them. You almost expect him to have a photograph of every one of them in his wallet. “Denis Kudla is #184 in the world right now. There are only one or two players younger than him who are ranked higher. Mitchell Frank is excelling at Virginia. Trice (Capra) is at Duke. Skylar Morton graduated from here in three years and is playing very well, #3 or 4 at UCLA. She should be a senior in high school.”

Then there’s the next class of Junior Champions. After we spoke about Riverdale’s FrancisTiafoe and Reisterstown’s Yancy Dennis, he was more than ready to talk up the local girls climbing the ladder. ”We have a girl named Elizabeth Scotty, who’s 10 and 16th in the country in under 12s. We are really strong in the 14 girls, including three girls from Baltimore, NadiaGizdova (Columbia, MD), Raveena Kingsley (Parkton, MD) and Jada Robinson (Reisterstown, MD). And next week, we’ll have a girl that is as good as any of them. Usue Arcornada. She’s coming with (longtime JTCC Coach) Frank Salazar. She’s originally from Argentina, but grew up in Puerto Rico. And she is a tiger.”

 

Steve Fogleman is a Baltimore, MD-based attorney when not covering tennis. He manages the website Tennis Maryland and can be followed on twitter @TennisMaryland for further updates.

San Jose: Harrison Beats Ginepri in Third Set Tiebreak

Ryan Harrison preparing to hit a backhand

At the SAP Open yesterday evening, two talented American players in very different stages of their careers met in the headline match. Ryan Harrison, the up-and-coming 19-year old, was coming off of his career best season last year, but had failed to get much momentum during the tour’s swing in Australia. He met Robby Ginepri, ten years older, who was trying to get back to the top level of the men’s game after breaking his arm in bicycling accident in October of 2010. The pair put on a high-quality tennis match, but in the end, youth was served when Harrison came away with the win, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(0).

As the match progressed, it became very difficult to ignore the resonance of the fact that these two players were poised at the opposite points in their career arcs. Ginepri is a three-time ATP titlist, former world number 15, and made it to the U.S. Open semifinals in 2005, losing to Andre Agassi. Ginepri was one of the American players coming up in the twilight of the era of Sampras-Agassi dominance, along with Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, and James Blake. He’s not ready to call it quits on his career by any means, and his renewed dedication to tennis developed during the time off his injury required, when he was able to get some perspective on what tennis meant to him. Judging by his performance tonight, he should have a few good years left in him.

On the other hand, Ryan Harrison is at the head of the new generation of American players, who were well-represented at this tournament. Denis Kudla bested Jack Sock and then gave veteran Andy Roddick a scare, but all three 19-year-olds should have promising tennis careers ahead of them. Thus far, it is Harrison who has demonstrated the greatest ability to capitalize on his potential. Last year, he reached back-to-back semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles, losing to top American Mardy Fish in both tournaments. He’s yet to have a signature win or claim his first title, but his tenacity and firepower have kept him on everyone’s radar.

The pair battled gamely from the very first, each taking turns at demonstrating their offensive and defensive skills. Both showed that they were able to strike powerful, penetrating ground strokes off both their forehand and backhand wings, as well as scramble and scrap their way back to a neutral position after their opponent had struck a particularly good ball. Harrison managed to break Ginepri and serve out the first set, but his level subsequently dropped enough for Ginepri to take the second set handily.

Once the third set began, both players began playing more consistently, and the match quickly began to heat up. Neither player was able to get a chance to break their opponent, until the very end of the set. Serving at 5-6, to try to get the match into the tiebreak, Harrison found himself down two break points – match points. On each of the two points, Ginepri did all he could to take the match. He attempted a scorching cross-court passing shot on the first, but Harrison managed to make a stellar lunging drop volley. On the second, Ginepri was forced to play a defensive lob, but Harrison had just buried an overhead into the net on the previous point. When he got his second chance, he made no mistake.

After saving those two match points, Harrison seemed invigorated in the tiebreak, while Ginepri was regretting his missed opportunities. The first point of the tiebreak went against sere when Ginepri missed a drop volley, and with his first two serves, Harrison produced a pair of powerful serves up the middle, neither of which Ginepri could get back in play. Once he was in a 3-0 hole, it proved to be too much for the elder American to dig himself out of.

There are times when being in Ryan Harrison’s shoes, with a decade of tennis ahead of you and innumerable opportunities along the way, makes it easier to swing freely in the pressure moments, as he did when he was down match points. For Robby Ginepri, he might have been wondering how many more chances like this he was going to have. Those thoughts can make it very difficult to play the kind of fearless tennis that Ryan Harrison produced yesterday.

San Jose: Andy Roddick Overcomes Injury and Denis Kudla to Win

Roddick playing a backhand return

There are times when it takes something special to invigorate a tennis tournament, to really make it feel like the competition has begun in earnest. Without question, the most thrilling and dramatic match in recent SAP Open memory came last night, when three-time champion Andy Roddick overcame a spectacular challenge from 19-year old qualifier Denis Kudla, 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-4. Under any set of circumstances, the match’s changes in momentum and stellar shot-making from both players would have had all the makings of a classic match. But it was an injury scare deep in the second set that raised the drama in this match to another level.

Roddick had started the match somewhat tentatively, which was cause for concern since the former world number one was playing his first tournament since withdrawing from the Australian Open with a hamstring injury. As the match wore on, it seemed to be more a result of a lack of match practice, rather than any lingering effects. Roddick found a serving rhythm, and while he was still not playing at his best, he was varying his shots effectively and moving well around the court.

It quickly became apparent that for Roddick, moving well would be an absolute necessity. His young opponent, who had to overcome some jitters at the start of the match, quickly settled into an extremely comfortable and surprising rhythm. Since Kudla is a newcomer to the ATP (he was playing in his ninth career tour-level match), not many of the viewers knew what to expect from him. Some had seen him play an excellent match in the first round against Jack Sock, in which he played solidly but largely beat the other young American with his consistency. He came out against the veteran with a much more difficult game plan.

Denis Kudla, who had reached the finals of the 2010 U.S. Open Junior tournament, played the majority of the match at a level that no one would have ever expected from a player ranked outside the top 200, except perhaps for Kudla himself. He had the confidence to go for shots that were for all intents and purposes, ridiculous. He would hit winners stretched wide to both his forehand and backhand side. He would blast shots up the line and rip cross-court winners. For a stretch, it not only seemed that Kudla was able to consistently paint the lines with his shots, it seemed that he was refusing to hit anywhere else on the court.

Roddick was clearly flustered by the flurry of winners coming off the 19-year old’s racket, and on many occasions when another cleanly-struck, line-licking ball flew past him, all he could do was roll his eyes in disbelief and get ready for the next point. This onslaught would have been enough to unsettle most players, but Roddick was clearly there to win. He may have only been playing, in his own words, “at 40%” throughout the first set, but he still managed to get it to a tie-break. Some aggressive play from his opponent in a key moment was enough to seal the set, and Roddick suddenly found himself down a set.

The second set saw Roddick up his intensity, buoyed by the crowd’s support and his own frustration. He started hitting his shots with more pace, while Kudla continued to swing freely, hardly concerned with the fact that he wasn’t supposed to be able to play that well for that long. Roddick was leading as the tail end of the set was drawing close, and the crowd was rooting for Andy to break and take the set. But when stretching out wide to return serve on the first point of the game at 4-5, Roddick rolled over on his ankle and screamed in pain as he rolled on the ground, covering his face with his hands.

The atmosphere in the arena was tense while the trainer evaluated the extent of Roddick’s injury. Ultimately, his ankle was put in a brace and took a few tentative steps. After the match, Andy admitted that he thought that the match might have been over, but he said in his press conference that he didn’t want to retire from another match with injury. He “was tired of doing that,” he said. Even when he returned to the court, it seemed like a long shot that he would be able to fight all the way back.

He was clearly moving a bit gingerly on his injured ankle, finding it difficult to push off that side. In his first service game after the injury, Roddick found himself in a love-forty hole. If he was broken there, surely Kudla would be able to serve out the match. It was at that point that the 19-year old first showed signs that he was feeling the pressure. Kudla had a simple cross-court pass that would have given him the break, but he pushed it slightly wide. Despite being slightly hobbled, Roddick seemed to detect the little waver in his opponent’s nerve, and he somehow managed not only to hold serve, but he also managed to eke out the tiebreak that followed.

Two hours in and the pair were tied at a set apiece. Each had held serve twelve straight times. Shockingly, the third set started with Kudla – who must have been severely disappointed that he hadn’t been able to wrap the match up already – finding a way to break Andy Roddick’s serve. It was at this point, once again, that Kudla blinked. He had the victory in his sights, and the pressure of beating a player who had inspired him while he was growing up proved to be too much. Kudla was broken twice, largely off of shots that he had been making for the first two sets, but were now landing well wide of the lines.

In the end, Roddick was happy to get the win and hopeful that his ankle would recover in time for him to play his best in Friday’s quarterfinal. But he believed that Kudla struggled with the prospect of winning the match, once the reality of it was so close. He knew that he’d been let off the hook, in some ways, by the younger American, and he understood the special kind of pressure that came with closing out a big upset.

Over the course of two hours and forty-two minutes, Roddick and Kudla played 257 total points. The match was so close that the final breakdown of points won was Kudla – 128 and Roddick – 129. The one extra point that Roddick won turned out to be the only point that mattered: match point.

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