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Denis Kudla’s Steady Rise

Denis Kudla Serve

Slow and steady wins the race.

Shortly after winning the prestigious junior Boys 16’s Orange Bowl title in 2009, 16-year-old Denis Kudla decided he was ready for the pro game. In the three years that followed, Kudla, who is currently at a career high world No. 203, has slowly but steadily risen in the rankings. The now 19-year-old has struggled to make an impact on the ATP Tour but is improving with each year and appears ready for a breakout season.

My introduction to Kudla was at the 2009 Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. The then 17-year-old Kudla had just taken a set off French journeyman Sebastien De Chaunac in the first round of qualifiers on center court and fans began to gather to observe this latest American hopeful.

As the much older and more experienced De Chaunac argued after close calls and expressed frustration throughout the match, Kudla remained poised and displayed maturity beyond what his age, Lleyton Hewitt style backwards-hat and long hair image would signify. Despite eventually losing 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, the crowd left with a sense that the future was bright for the kid.

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Kudla moved to Virginia with his family at a young age and began playing tennis at seven-years-old. He would become a member of the renowned Junior Tennis Champions Center located at the USTA Regional certified training facility at College Park, MD. Kudla led a contingent of highly talented young players there and experienced a stellar junior career that culiminated in a 2010 U.S. Open Boys runner-up trophy, losing to fellow American up-and-comer Jack Sock – the first all-American boys’ final at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick defeated Robby Ginepri in 2000.

While young American players such as 19-year-olds Ryan Harrison and Sock grab headlines and are touted as the nation’s future, Kudla has quietly amassed a respectable resume, with consecutive wins over hard-serving Ivo Karlovic and the precocious Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov at the 2011 Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships. Kudla mainly plays on the Challenger Tour, fighting for those precious ATP points, and has only played in one Grand Slam main draw match – losing to veteran Tommy Haas in the first round of this year’s Australian Open, but if the early months of 2012 are any indication, this can be his year in the spotlight.

This week Kudla qualified for the SAP Open in San Jose, CA and defeated Sock to set up a second round marquee matchup against Andy Roddick on Wednesday night.

“I learned that I can do anything if I believe, and if I put my mind to it a lot can be done with hard work and strong mentality towards a goal,” Kudla told Tennis Grandstand. “This is where I thought I would be [in my career] and my goals are to break top 100 and hopefully top 50.”

The reserved, yet highly driven Kudla is out to make a name for himself and has a chance to make it happen against the 17th-ranked Roddick. As Kudla’s confidence continues to rise, so will his rankings, just as it has ever since he turned pro.

This race is just getting started.

San Jose: McEnroe/Sock Prevail Over Monfils/Johnson; Anderson Wins

John McEnroe in press

The weather in San Jose may have been unusually cold and wet today – even for February, but that didn’t stop things from proceeding exactly as planned at the HP Pavilion, where the first day of the SAP Open finished up at ten minutes before midnight, when big-serving Kevin Anderson prevailed over Grigor Dimitrov in a third set tiebreak. Dimitrov had come out on fire, but once the tall South African found his serving rhythm in the second set, neither player could manage a break, and when it comes to tiebreaks, being able to rely on a booming serve like Anderson’s can make all the difference.

The highlight of the evening had been earlier, when the legendary John McEnroe took to the court, along with the talented and top-seeded Gael Monfils to play doubles, each paired with a young American. McEnroe partnered with Jack Sock, while Monfils played with NCAA champion Steve Johnson. The exhibition match had its roster changed around due to the withdrawals before the tournament, but neither the B-team players nor the weather outside could dampen the audience’s enjoyment of Johnny Mac displaying plenty of his signature magic at the net.

Monfils got up to plenty of showmanship as well, with his own brand of shots behind the back, between the legs, and hang time smashes, not to mention plenty of diving and sliding around the court, in his inimitable fashion. Sock and Johnson each acquitted themselves admirably, both serving and volleying with more precision that you might expect from a pair so inexperienced at tour level. Sock has perhaps a bit more firepower and a bit more flare than the USC Trojan, but everyone in attendance was left confident that both players ought to have long and successful pro careers ahead of them.

Of course, it was McEnroe who was the main draw of the evening, and he did not disappoint. He served exceptionally well, going so far as to thank the operator of the radar gun when one of his serves hit the 126 mph mark, which he claims to have been a first for him. McEnroe turns 53 on Thursday (the crowd regaled him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday”) but his ability to hit pinpoint volleys from seemingly impossible positions and to place them perfectly on the other side of the court remains unmatched in the modern game. The crowd also got the result they wanted from the match, with McEnroe and Sock prevailing in two tight sets, 6-4, 6-4. There were even some theatrics involving the line calls and the challenge system, but it all seemed to be in good fun.

After the match, McEnroe fielded questions about the state of the game today and the surprises of his post-playing tennis career. He explained how thankful he was to have come to enjoy these sorts of exhibitions as well as his time as a broadcaster, two things which he never thought he would have wanted to continue doing, while he was playing. He also discussed his movie and TV roles, and marveled at how many people recognize him from his appearances in Adam Sandler movies, without being aware that he was originally a tennis player.

When it came to his take on the modern tennis game, he once again touched on how spoiled the United States had been up until the current generation, and what needed to be done to get an American player vying for grand slam titles, again. McEnroe touted Sock as a future top ten player, but he had more to say about what he is currently trying to accomplish at his tennis academy in New York. It was his opinion that the current trend in junior development which forces young players to devote themselves almost exclusively to tennis inevitably leads to burnout. He believed that a more rounded development process would ultimately be more successful, but he recognizes he’s in the minority, even finding himself in disagreement with his own brother, who is the head of the USTA player development program.

I guess time will tell.

When it came to the other matches during the day session, it was not a great day to be a former junior world number one. Two of them were in action in the final round of qualifying, and neither managed to win a set. Ricardas Berankis, who reached the quarterfinals in this tournament last year but has been struggling with a leg injury, was forced to retire against Tim Smyczek. Yuki Bhambri, another great junior player who has been struggling to make the transition to the pro level, fell to collegiate tennis player Dennis Lajola, of the University of Hawaii. It marks the first time that Lajola has ever successfully qualified into the main draw of an ATP event, and he has a chance to go even further, since he meets another qualifier in the first round tomorrow.

SAP Open Tournament Preview

Milos Raonic

While the tennis season has been underway for nearly a month and a half already, the sport has to make its way onto US soil – with the exception of five matches a few weeks ago, when the United States bested Belarus in Fed Cup competition in Worcester, Massachusetts. That encounter was just a taste, because from now until the middle of April, there will be at least one professional tennis tournament taking place in the United States every week.

The first tournament is the long-running SAP Open in San Jose, and it must be said that US tennis is slightly stumbling out of the blocks. Even before the tournament has officially begun, the draw has been dramatically weakened by some high-profile withdrawals, particularly the veterans Hewitt and Blake, along with up-and-coming Aussie phenom Bernard Tomic. As if that weren’t enough, all three of the tournament’s top three seeds (Roddick, Monfils, and defending champion Raonic) have been struggling with injuries recently, and their ability to perform at their top levels has to be considered something of a question mark.

Fortunately for the tournament organizers, the remainder of the field – while not necessarily star-studded – is certainly varied. There are a handful of tour veterans, including Tommy Haas, Radek Stepanek, Xavier Malisse, and Michael Russell. The showing from the younger contingent is just as strong, as it features Donald Young, Grigor Dimitrov, Ryan Harrison, and (probably) Milos Raonic. In addition to those young men, there is an excellent chance that we’ll have at least a couple more, once qualifying is completed on Monday. Ricardas Berankis, Yuki Bhambri, and Denis Kudla are all young players who have a shot at the main draw. Several years ago, Andy Murray won his first ATP title in San Jose, so we could see another young gun using this tournament as a springboard this year.

There are a handful of other interesting players scattered throughout the draw, including a pair of Americans fighting their way back from injuries last year (Sam Querrey and Robbie Ginepri), one of the shortest and one of the tallest players on tour (Olivier Rochus and Kevin Anderson), as well as the most successful active player without a tournament win (Julien Benneteau, who is 0-6 in finals). I also happen to think that Denis Istomin is one of the most entertaining players who you’ve probably never heard of. Just check out this point he played against Nadal a few years ago. He’s a guy that I keep expecting to make a breakthrough, but it hasn’t happened, yet.

It’s always tough to predict how a tournament will break down, before you can see what sort of form players are in and how well they like the conditions that particular week. It’s especially difficult for a tournament when the favorites are carrying injuries that aren’t going to be helping their chances. Roddick, Raonic, and Stepanek are all former champions here. Raonic has another title this year already, and Monfils made the final of the last tournament he played in, losing a close match to Berdych in Montpellier. Roddick looked to be in good form at the Australian Open until a hamstring injury sidelined him against Lleyton Hewitt. Roddick is one of two active players (the other being Federer) to have won at least one title per year for the last eleven years. I know that’s a streak that Andy would like to see continue, and if he’s fully recovered, he has an excellent shot this week in San Jose.

If Roddick and the other big dogs aren’t able to play their best, then it might be open season. There are plenty of wily veterans who would love to get their hands on the trophy and just as many hungry young players who want their first taste of victory.

Around The Corner: Life After The Davis Cup

Juan Martin del Potro will be in action this week in Rotterdam

With the opening round of the Davis Cup wrapping up on Sunday, the ATP World Tour will now shift back into form with three tournaments in Rotterdam, San Jose and Sao Paulo. Here’s a closer look at the draws from all three events and some analysis on who stands the best chance of making it to the final weekend.

ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament

The largest of the three being played this week, the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament is a level 500 event. An indoor hard-court event, Roger Federer will be looking for the surface to bring him some much needed success. A disastrous Davis Cup showing at home on clay has left Federer clearly confused about the status of his game. Rather than admit he played poorly, Federer instead shifted the blame onto country-man Stan Wawrinka. It was a rare moment of bad judgement from Federer. He opens with Nicolas Mahut from France and then could potentially face a dangerous opponent in Mikhail Youzhny who won the title recently in Zagreb.

The always tricky Alexandr Dolgopolov is also in the same quarter as Federer. The two have only played once, with Federer winning in Basel two years ago. Dolgopolov has come a long way since then and with the way Roger played this past week, you’d have to think this could be a great QF match.

Richard Gasquet, Feliciano Lopez and former top-ten presence Nikolay Davydenko are in the following quarter of the draw. I’d give a well-rested Gasquet (he did not travel to Canada for Davis Cup) the best shot of emerging here.

Juan Martin Del Potro is the third seed and should be able to navigate his way through the third quarter of the draw. He opens against Michael Llodra of France who has to get all the way from Vancouver, Canada to Rotterdam in the next twenty-four hours.

At the bottom of the draw is second seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic who has had some success lately with a big win in Montpellier over Gael Monfils. Berdych had a very solid 2011 where he won one event and reached eight tournament semi-finals and seven tournament quarter-finals. He is really starting to find that consistency that will make him a mainstay in the top-ten. A meeting in the second round with Marcos Baghdatis looms, but otherwise Berdych should be able to set-up a semi-final encounter with Del Potro that would be highly entertaining.

Regardless of the results, the tournament is guaranteed a new winner this year as Robin Soderling is not yet healthy enough to defend the title which he has held for the past two years. I’m gonna give the nod to Berdych in this one and I have a feeling that Federer’s recent troubles might continue with an early exit this week.

Brasil Open 2012

Played on clay, the Brasil Open attracts some of the usual dirt-ballers one might expect to see. Nicolas Almagro is the defending champion and also won this event in 2008. He has played some pretty decent ball on hard-courts so far this year so we’ll see if that continues on his favourite surface. Almagro is seeded first and gets a bye into the second round. His quarter is pretty sparse which should help him get his clay-court wheels going.

Fernando Verdasco is the third seed and has a nice section in his quarter as well. Take a look at veteran Fernando Gonzalez from Chile if possible as he has already announced his retirement to take place in Miami this coming March. Injuries have really taken away Gonzo’s physical and mental endurance but hopefully he has a little magic left in him before he says goodbye.

In the bottom-half of the draw, aging Juan Carlos Ferrero the eighth seed and Thomaz Bellucci the fourth seed will likely fight it out for a spot in the quarter, while the bottom quarter is the most interesting with David Nalbandian who is unseeded, Albert Montanes and second seeded Gilles Simon.

Almagro gets my vote of confidence to take this one based on his clay-court prowess and success at this venue in previous years.

SAP Open

A year ago the ATP World Tour took notice of fast-rising Canadian sensation Milos Raonic when he won his first-ever event here in San Jose. Unfortunately for Canadian tennis fans, a repeat will be very difficult to achieve for several reasons.

Firstly, Raonic was forced to pull-out of the Davis Cup tie against France on Sunday with pain in his knee that had been already taped throughout the event. Will he even be healthy enough to play in San Jose?

Beyond the injury debate, Milos has a tough draw that sets him up with first-seeded Gael Monfils in a possible semi-final match-up. He will also have to contend with having the entire draw gunning for him as the defending champ. Coming into an event as the title-holder is quite different from what he experienced a year ago.

In the bottom-half things will be pretty wide-open with Andy Roddick returning from an injury he suffered at the Australian Open and occupying the second seed. Who knows what kind of game the former American No. 1 will bring with him but his lack of match play will hinder his changes.

Underachieving Sam Querrey, aging Radek Stepanek and vet Julien Benneteau round-out the bottom half in terms of potential contenders. I’d look for one of them rather than Roddick to make their way to the finals against Monfils who appears to be over the knee problems that he was dealing with upon his arrival to Canada for the Davis Cup.

ONLY TIP THAT MATTERS IS THE ONE FOR HAITI

Hit for Haiti

By Bob Stockton

A slight controversy arose Friday night at the “Hit for Haiti” charity match Friday night at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., during the match pitting Roger Federer and Pete Sampras against Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal.

After Sampras did an impersonation of Agassi – walking pigeon toed on the baseline – Agassi responded by doing an impersonation of Sampras by pulling out both the pockets of his tennis pants and saying that he doesn’t have any money. The barb was in reference to Agassi stating in his book OPEN that Sampras had a reputation for being a very bad tipper.

The public claim in the book irked Sampras, who earlier this year revealed in a conference call to promote an exhibition appearance at the SAP Open in San Jose that he was upset with Agassi and planned to speak to him man-on-man about it. Later in February in San Jose, Sampras said he and Agassi had worked it out. It was fine, no ill feelings,” Sampras said last month. “I know Andre likes to push the envelope, with everything he does, but with me, I thought we were above all that. He chose to be open and honest about everything, and I was a little surprised he went down that road.”

Following Agassi’s tipping joke Friday, there seemed to be an uncomfortable feeling and awkwardness that continued into the post-match on-court interviews.

The tricky thing about these exhibitions and charity matches is that they tend to showcase what the participants are not (comedians) more than what they are (excellent tennis players). Players should focus more on entertaining fans with their tennis skills, not with their wit or attempts at humor. Would it not have been more riveting to see these four players go at full force rather than try to get laughs? Agassi, the wittiest of the four men’s champions competing Friday night, tried a little too hard to create another laugh. This is a situation that many other people have found themselves in the past, whether on a public stage or in private moments. Agassi stepped over the line. It happens often, as documented with famous people and people’s everyday normal lives. I am sure Agassi regrets what he said.

An appropriate response from Sampras – that would have ended the awkwardness immediately – should have been “The only tip that matters tonight is the one we are trying to get for Haiti.”

The event raised $1 million of the American Red Cross that will be used to help people in the Haiti, devastated last month by a deadly earthquake that killed over 200,000 people.

ATP REVIEW WITH VOO

Juan Carlos

It was an all-countrymen week in ATP finals. In Marseille the Frenchman Michael Llodra won his fourth career ATP title when he beat his compatriot Julien Benneteau 6-3, 6-4. In Memphis, Sam Querrey won his third career title, winning the All-American final in Memphis, overcoming John Isner 6-7(3), 7-6(5), 6-3 despite a 2-5 deficit in the second set tie-break. In Buenos Aires, a final resolution turned into an inner Spanish affair as Juan Carlos Ferrero outlasted David Ferrer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. The 30-year-old Ferrero won back-to-back titles, last week, he

won his 13th career title in Costa Do Sauipe, Brazil. He repeated the feat of his compatriot Tommy Robredo who won Costa Do Sauipe and Buenos Aires last year. The last time within a week all-countrymen finals in three different tournaments ocurred 7.5 years ago (22-29 July, 2002):

Kitzbuhel
Alex Corretja (ESP) def. Juan Carlos Ferrero (ESP) 6-4 6-1 6-3
Sopot
Jose Acasuso (ARG) def. Franco Squillari (ARG) 2-6 6-1 6-3
Los Angeles
Andre Agassi (USA) def. Jan-Michael Gambill (USA) 6-2 6-4

Before this week, there have only been three times in the last 20 years where the two singles finalists have played a final in doubles together at the same tournament (Stefan Edberg with Magnus Larsson in Doha 1995, Lleyton Hewitt with Mark Philippoussis – Scottsdale 2003 and Philipp Kohlschreiber with Mikhail Youzhny – Munich 2007). This week it happened in two tournaments as Michael Llodra with Julien Benneteau won doubles final in Marseille, and John Isner paired with Sam Querrey to win in Memphis. Querrey a week earlier won his first doubles title at the SAP Open in San Jose, with Mardy Fish, and has extended his streak to eight doubles wins in a row.

ATP REVIEW WITH VOO

Robin Soderling came to Rotterdam having lost his last six matches and started the tournament by losing the first set in his opening match with Florent Serra. But since then, he played some of best indoor tennis and won nine consecutive sets, at 6-4 2-0 for him in the final, a 2007 champion Mikhaily Youzhny was forced to retire because of right hamstring. Youzhny had beaten a new No 2 Novak Djokovic in the semifinal in two tie-breaks. “It’s been a very good week overall,” said Soderling who won his fifth title. “I started out struggling a bit in my first two rounds, struggling to find my form, but I worked hard and managed to get better with every match”.

Fernando Verdasco claimed his fourth career title (first indoor) after beating Andy Roddick 3-6 6-4 6-4 in the final of SAP Open in San Jose. For the Spaniard, it was the first ever indoor tournament in USA. Verdasco broke Roddick’s serve at 1:1 in the second set and at 4:4 in the third set to finish the match with his 15th aces (Roddick served 10). Roddick has already won 13 matches this season, second best after Marin Cilic (15). The 19-year-old Ricardas Berankis (No. 255) of Lithuania, became the first man from his country to reach an ATP singles quarterfinal.

Juan Carlos Ferrero needed only 60 minutes to demolish Lukasz Kubot 6-1 6-0 in Costa Do Saupe, Brazil. Ferrero who celebrated his 30th birthday during the tournament, won the 13th title in his 30th career final. “You never expect to play a one-sided final like this,” admitted Ferrero. “One is always nervous in the beginning of a final, and it wasn’t different today. I thought I played well from the beginning and with two breaks of serve ahead quite early in the match I never looked back”. Kubot reached his second final of his career and for the second time lost to a top-seeded player (lost to Djokovic the final in Belgrade 2009). The Pole had had very busy Friday – he won two singles matches and one doubles (losing only 13 games in the process) before overcoming Igor Andreev in the semifinal despite being down 1:3 in the final set.

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