|Clay Thompson. ©Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise|
"I'm really happy with how I played today," said Krueger. "It's always tough playing a guy like [Smith] indoors, on a faster surface." The players traded breaks in the second set and each saved additional break points prior to the tiebreaker. "The good thing about a tiebreaker is you only need one or two return points to get a lead. You don't need to win four [return] points to win the game. I thought I served well at the end when I really needed to."
The week away from the tour may have helped put him over the top. "I played, I think, 8 weeks in a row. I was still feeling fresh mentally -- or as fresh as you can -- but a week off always does wonders, and especially a week off at home, with your family." Krueger noted that he hit with the TCU men's team while in Fort Worth.
Of course, even better than Australian Open qualies would be a main draw entry into Melbourne. That's still very much on the table for the man they call Kruegs, as it is for with 3 other Americans who won their second round matches: Taylor Fritz, Eric Quigley, and Mackenzie McDonald. If any of them wins the tournament, that player will win the USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge (USTAPCAOWCC). If none of them wins Champaign, Noah Rubin will get the wild card thanks to his Charlottesville title.
Two other Americans are still in the Champaign main draw: #2 seed Austin Krajicek and qualifier Clay Thompson. Neither of them are candidates for the aforementioned wild card, however. Krajicek, who beat fellow big-serving, aggressive lefty Adrien Bossel 7-6(3) 6-3 in a match featuring just one break of serve, would move up to ~#85 with a title, giving him direct entry into the Melbourne main draw and giving the wild card to Rubin.
Krajicek saved all 3 break points he faced on Wednesday, a day after saving all 9 he faced against Raymond Sarmiento. "I was just able to serve well, make first serves on those points. Sometimes you get a little bit lucky on some of those, but you have to." Krajicek has had a nice run this fall, notwithstanding two third-set tiebreak Challenger losses. He reached the quarterfinals at the ATP 500 in Tokyo and broke into the Top 100 for the first time. "That's been a huge goal of mine for a long time. I'm excited moving forward. I think I'm moving in the right direction and improving every week."
Then there's Thompson. The 23-year-old former UCLA Bruin had failed to qualify in his first 12 attempts at the Challenger level prior to this week (he did get a main draw wild card to last year's Dallas Challenger). In his final opportunity of 2015, he won his first two matches (including a comprehensive win over the dangerous Stefan Kozlov) to set up a meeting with Brit David Rice in the final round of qualies. There he went up 5-1 in the third set but started to feel dizzy on court. Rice won 4 games in a row and Thompson asked the chair umpire if he could sit down, which the umpire allowed.
"I felt really bad for David because that kind of was a stop in the play when he had all the momentum," said Thompson.
Thompson then won the last two games of the match to finally qualify for a challenger. In Tuesday night's premier match, he beat former Illini Dennis Nevolo in an entertaining, dramatic match that went to a third-set tiebreak. Challenger win #1. And then tonight, in by far his biggest pro win ranking-wise, he beat former Ohio State Buckeye Blaz Rola 7-6(4) 6-3, saving all five break points he faced. Challenger win #2.
When asked what has made the difference in his play, Thompson said, "I think my groundies have definitely improved but I think just staying focused -- I think that's what I've really harnessed these past two days," said Thompson. "The energy has been great but I've just really been intense with my focus. In the past I'd kind of get spacey and kind of go 'la da da da da.' Me skipping around, that helps me get focused. I think that's a milestone for me."
Unfortunately for Thompson, a Champaign title would leave him tied in the USTAPCWCC with Rubin, but ranking would fall just a few points below Rubin's, giving the latter the wild card. But it's hard to imagine he'd be anything but thrilled with a title.
Anyway, back to the wild card candidates:
- To begin the day, 18-year-old Fritz slew the American Slayer, Dan Evans, who had won six straight matches, all against Americans, coming into Wednesday. Fritz overcame a rough second set in which he was having breathing difficulties to beat the Knoxville champion 6-2 3-6 6-4. Fritz found his energy in the third set, and was glad to be serving second, because it meant he would serve first after changeovers. "I got to serve rested and not tired at all," he said. "And so if I got an easy enough hold, I could focus on breaking. And I just got that one break and told myself, 'Just hang on to it. Don't kill [yourself] trying to break again, just conserve the energy, focus on the service games and get it done.'" Fritz had to save three break points at 3*-2 in the third, but once he passed that Rubicon, the match was in the bag.
|Eric Quigley. ©Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise|
- Fritz's fellow top-200 teen, 17-year-old Frances Tiafoe, had a rougher time of it against former University of Kentucky star Quigley. Tiafoe lost focus often in the match, complaining frequently about line calls and seemingly astonished at #327-ranked Quigley's high level of play ("I'm playing Novak," Tiafoe lamented deep in the third set after a terrific defensive point by Quigley). The win marks just the 26-year-old Quigley's second-ever challenger quarterfinal. Quigley said he played well in both Charlottesville and Knoxville, but came up "a little short in the first rounds." Quigley continued, "I knew my game was there. It was just a matter of a few points."
- To kick off the evening, 20-year-old McDonald caught a bit of a break. He lost the first set 6-2 to Ryan Harrison but Harrison called the trainer after the third game of the match for a back issue. Harrison was unable to sustain his level in the second set, while McDonald started playing what USTA coach Brad Stine calls "Mackie Ball," flying around on court and hitting his beautifully clean, flat ground strokes. He won the second set 6-1, at which point Harrison retired. The match was perhaps most notable for McDonald's sporting of a mustache -- he and his UCLA teammates are participating in Movember. (You can donate here.)
In other action, top seed Malek Jaziri beat Daniel Nguyen 7-5 7-6(5) to set up a meeting with Fritz (the 4th American teen he'll have faced during this indoor swing); Jaziri and Krajicek are the sole seeds remaining in the draw. And in perhaps the highest quality match of the day, Swiss #3 Henri Laaksonen continued his standout American swing by beating defending finalist Frederik Nielsen 3-6 7-6(6) 7-6(3).
Those two non-Americans will have plenty to say about how the USTAPCAOWCC plays out. And so will the six Americans who had great -- and in at least one case, career-changing -- wins on Wednesday.