Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

On the Rise (a tennis blog) is pleased to present our first-ever guest columnist! Patrick Rourke is a university student who shares this blog's passion for 'merican tennis. He also happens to be a big fan of Australian John-Patrick "JP" Smith, who is currently up to a career-high #172 in the world. Patrick graciously agreed to contribute a write-up of Smith's Tuesday night match at the Odlum Brown VanOpen, a USTA Pro Circuit/ATP Challenger event. Let us know what you think - all feedback is appreciated - as Patrick says, he's got thick skin!

Its 7,216 miles from Townsville, Australia to West Vancouver, British Colombia, but when he stepped on court for his first round match against Marcos Baghdatis, John-Patrick Smith felt right at home. With the popular “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!” chant ringing down from the bleachers before the first ball was hit, the tone was set. The crowd was firmly behind the 25-year-old Queenslander, not the number one seed and former world number eight, and with the show he was about to put on, who could blame them?

Before we delve into the match, perhaps it is best to start with a brief history of how Smith got to this point, because it wasn’t easy. Growing up in Australia, he was ranked as high as sixth in the ITF junior rankings. But instead of traveling overseas to expensive foreign academies, or staying home and training with Tennis Australia, Smith took the unconventional route: he went to college in the United States - the University of Tennessee of all places. As his peers John Millman, Samuel Groth, and Matt Ebden were traveling around the world embarking on their professional careers, Smith was trying to balance his college career with sitting in lecture halls studying economics. Whatever Smith did worked: he graduated from Tennessee with 298 career victories, the most of any Vol in history. During his time at Tennessee he was ranked #1 nationally in singles and doubles, and he graduated as only the second player in the history of college tennis to be named a four-time All-American in both singles and doubles. Suffice to say, the path less traveled was the right one for Mr. Smith.

Thanks in part to his doubles prowess, Smith does not play a “conventional” singles game. Using his lefty serve to set up points, Smith plays a serve and volley style straight out of the 70’s. His coach Yoav Sarrony describes it simply as “old school serve volley,” and while it may be old school, Smith might single-handedly bring it back in style. It is not merely his playing style that is unusual. His groundstrokes, while far from technically perfect, are incredibly effective. His backhand, which terrorized Baghdatis all night, is not a topspin backhand; commentator Mark Bey described it as “some sort of funky sidespin.” You wouldn’t teach it that way, but you also would never reach the lofty heights which Smith has.

Back to Vancouver, where things looked bleak for Smith. Despite playing a near-perfect first set, he fell 6-4 to the one seed. He won 93% of his first serve points, but was just 3/14 on second serves, including losing his first nine second serves. After he went down an early break *1-3 in the second set, the match appeared over. Baghdatis had not been broken all night, and stepped up his level every time Smith got within touching distance on the Cypriot’s serve.

But Smith did not tank, that would’ve been the easy thing to do. So often on the Challenger circuit, players tank when they get down. In the two weeks prior to Vancouver, there were 48 “bagels” (6-0 sets). It’s an unfortunate aspect of the game, and it has become all too common. At the first sign of adversity, players give up, but not Smith. His entire life he bucked the trend, and he continued to do so last night. Smith broke back, and consolidated the break to bring it to 3-3. His sternest test came at 4-4, where he faced five break points. The story, once again, was the first serve; Smith was winning 71% of his first serves, when he could come in behind it and play the net game he wanted. But when he missed his first serve, his winning percentage fell to a meager 31%. But Smith continued to hold on; he bent, but he did not break. At *30-40 down, he hit the shot of the match, a laser-like backhand down the line that Baghdatis could only watch in agony as it clipped the outside of the line. Thanks to his big serving, Smith saved another break point, and another. On Baghdatis’ fifth break point (and virtual match point), a fan yelled out “let’s go JP, no one doesn’t like you!” Instead of backing off and looking irritated, as many players would’ve done, instead of standing there stone faced, pretending he couldn’t hear a thing, the Aussie broke into a smile. Unconventional once again.

After staving off the Baghdatis barrage, Smith suddenly found himself in the driver’s seat. With Baghdatis serving at 5-6, 30-30, Smith fired a bullet of a backhand down the line to set up set point. On set point, it was a role reversal; Baghdatis came to net and forced the issue. After a brief rally, Baghdatis blinked first, floating a volley to Smith’s backhand, and Smith fired it for a crosscourt winner to send the match into the third set. Call the backhand unconventional, call it ugly, bemoan its funky sidespin, call it whatever you like. Because I’ll just call it one thing: damn good.

As the clock ticked past 9:00 p.m. in Vancouver, the match turned into what Bey described as “a one-upmanship show,” and it was not limited to the court. A female Baghdatis fan, clearly trying to outdo the throng of Smith fanatics, gave Marcos some encouragement: “Come on Marcos you’re hot!” It was a raucous atmosphere, with the tone set by the two magicians on court. Smith would hit a 124 mph ace; Baghdatis would hit a 125 mph ace. Baghdatis would produce a stunning drop shot; Smith would produce an even better drop shot and back it up with an inch perfect lob.

By the time the third set rolled around, the stands were filled to capacity. Matches on the outer courts were suspended due to darkness, and the crowd on Centre grew even bigger. Smith’s countrymen, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Jordan Kerr, were enjoying it in the stands, and Smith’s cheering squad grew even more. He might be unconventional, but there sure were a lot of people in Vancouver who like it that way.

It was Baghdatis who drew first blood in the third, breaking in the very first game. After all of Smith’s hard work, it appeared the #1 would pull away. If not, Smith would tank. After all, isn’t that what everyone else would do? But Smith continued to fight, and he stepped up his level yet again; by this point, both players were playing like top 50 players. After the shaky start, Smith dialed in his serve, prompting Bey to say “he [Baghdatis] couldn’t have got that one on a motorcycle.” Hyperbole? I’m not sure, it was that good.

Smith continued to fight, holding his way through games with relative ease. Unlike the first two sets, it was Baghdatis who struggled on serve, winning a paltry 19% of second service points. Smith brought up break point at 4-3, *30-40, but Baghdatis, in imperious fashion, saved it with a 126 mph ace out wide. At 5-3 down in the third, Smith had to hold from the less favorable side, into the wind, to try and force Baghdatis to serve it out. He delivered his best service game of the match. After displaying incredible serve and volley skills on the first point, Mark Bey commented, “That’s so good, that’s as good as old school Rafter, Edberg, Johnny Mac or Sampras.” Smith followed it up with an even better point, and Bey was once again, mightily impressed: “That’s Johnny Mac tennis right there, that’s old school.” Smith had always had the hair, now he was playing like seventeen-time Grand Slam champion. With Bey filling in for the beloved Mike Cation, he is a relative unknown for most viewers. However, he was my junior coach on and off for seven or eight years, and as such, is someone I know very well. So let me say this, Mark Bey doesn’t just throw around compliments like that. In fact, in all the years I’ve known Mark, I’ve never heard him speak so highly of a player as he did of JP Smith last night. He was that good.

Image via Sam Groth's twitter feed
Crunch time, it was up to the former world number eight to serve it out like the experienced veteran he is, and he couldn’t. The nerves were apparent. First point: missed serve, unforced error. (After losing the first point, Baghdatis, as Bey pointed out, had just a 29% chance of winning the game.) Second point: double fault. Third point: double fault. After saving the first break point with another big serve, Baghdatis was broken after more great cat-and-mouse play from Smith. And we played on.

As Smith prepared to serve at 5-5, a fan yelled out to Smith, “You’ve earned this buddy, come on now!” He had, Smith earned it and then some. And so had Baghdatis. It sounds so cliché, it sounds like the “everyone gets a trophy” culture which I’ve ranted so heavily against in other settings, but both players truly did deserve to win. You didn’t want to see anyone lose. But someone had to. Showing incredible composure, Baghdatis rebounded from his nightmarish service game and broke Smith right back. This time, Baghdatis made no mistakes serving it out.

After Baghdatis sealed the match with a 128 mph serve that Smith could only return into the bottom of the net, the Vol’s reaction was perplexing to say the least. He didn’t embark on an expletive-laden rant, he did not break his racquet (his opponent famously broke four at the 2012 Australian Open), instead he approached Baghdatis with a grin that stretched halfway to Townsville. Conventional? Most certainly not. But when has he ever let that stop him?
Enjoy the full match here:

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