Tuesday, November 3, 2015

American teens light it up in Charlottesville

Stefan Kozlov into the 2nd round at Charlottesville.
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise (a tennis blog)
He's the 9th-ranked 21-year-old in the world, at a career-high ATP ranking of #236 -- 150 spots higher than where he was at the start of the year. He was, not long ago, the #5 junior in the world. He's got a big game, moves quite well, and today moved into the 2nd round of the Charlottesville Men's Pro Challenger.

Given all that, it may seem odd that in a country forever hungry for up-and-coming players, Mitchell Krueger will not be getting the headlines for his win today over Mac Styslinger. But there's a pretty good reason for that, or rather six good reasons for that: a group of American guys juuuust a little younger than Krueger who are having exceptional results on the tennis court.

On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, six American teens won their first round matches at the Charlottesville Challenger on what was frankly a remarkable day for American tennis.

The day started with the three oldest of the group -- 19-year-olds Ernesto Escobedo, Noah Rubin, and Jared Donaldson. They are the senior members of this cadre.

The first two of those three came back from a set down to win their matches. Escobedo was bageled in the first set by #8 seed Liam Broady, but then used eye-popping serves and groan-inducing forehands to beat the feisty Brit in a second set tiebreaker and then 6-3 in the third. "When I'm in the zone, I just feel it," said Escobedo. "I try not to think about it." He didn't relax once he got ahead in the third set. Against the steady and determined Broady, he said, "I can't give him any free points."

Rubin, the only one of today's teen winners to go to college (Wake Forest), struggled at first against University of Kentucky alum Eric Quigley, going down a break in the second set. But he used his speed, an improved serve, and some big backhands to win 3-6 7-6(4) 6-4. "After the first, he was playing really well, I figured I had to step up a little bit," said Rubin. "I had my chances to break [in the second set], and then he broke me right after I had those chances. So it was tough. But I tried to keep as calm as possible and just be out there in the moment. I stepped up on the balls I needed to, got the break, and just kept steady."

Donaldson won in straight sets, but it was no walk in the park. Playing against 28-year-old Czech Marek Michalicka (University of Wisconsin) he failed to convert on nine break points in the first set before taking it 7-3 in a tiebreak. In the second set, Donaldson was well in control, serving for the match at 5-2 when things started to fall apart. Thanks to Michalicka's tenacity (and Donaldson taking his foot off the pedal), the American found himself serving at 5*-4 0-40. But then the Czech stopped making returns and the American won 6-4.

"If it went to 5-all, I was ready for 5-all because I thought I was playing pretty well," said Donaldson. "I just had some opportunities I didn't really take in the first set, but I was playing really well." Donaldson will face Rubin in the 2nd round. "Noah was really my first win of my career in the juniors, at the 18s of Kalamazoo [in 2013]. I beat him in the semifinals, and I think that was the first win that gave me a lot of confidence; my game started to turn the corner."

Next came the lone 18-year-old in the main draw, French Open junior champion Tommy Paul. Paul took advantage of a ton of Chase Buchanan backhand errors to win 6-2 6-4 -- although even that was not without some drama. Serving at 5-3 in the second, Paul went up 40-0 but promptly hit 5 unforced errors in the next 5 points to drop serve. But he stayed with it and broke at 15 in the next game for the win. Paul is now 6-0 in Challenger-level first rounds. Unfortunately, he's 0-5 in second rounds -- a stat he'll be looking to improve upon come Thursday against either Blaz Kavcic (SLO) or Frederik Nielsen (DEN), who will be the last first-round match on Wednesday due to both players playing Davis Cup in Europe this past weekend.

"I knew he was struggling with [his backhand] a little bit, so I tried to kick in a few more second serves and first serves to his backhand," said Paul. "I wouldn't say I was targeting it in the points, I just felt comfortable going backhand-to-backhand with him."

Then came one of two 17-year-olds: Stefan Kozlov, just recently returned from a trip through the Futures circuit in Europe that helped salvage his uneven season. Kozlov played yet another teen, Collin Altamirano, the 2013 USTA Boys national champion who helped the University of Virginia to its second NCAA national championship last year as a freshman. The last time the two met, at the 2014 USTA Boys national championships, Altamirano ran away with the match, 6-2 6-4. This time, Kozlov turned the tables, allowing the Californian only 3 games in a 6-3 6-0 victory.

"Obviously a lot has changed since then," commented Kozlov. "It's been two years and we both have changed a lot as players. I just played the big points today much better and I served myself out of tight situations that could have gone the other way."

Finally, the nightcap: Frances Tiafoe, who just missed out on being the tournament's 8th seed by 2 ranking spots, against #1 seed Malek Jaziri, a Tunisian ranked #95 in the world. Before the match, I asked USTA Head of Men's Tennis Jay Berger whether he thought Tiafoe had a chance. "When Frances plays well, he can beat anyone," said Berger. And Frances did play well, beating the crafty North African 7-6 (5) 6-4.

Tiafoe served wonderfully, holding his first 10 service games without facing a break point. He finally broke Jaziri and served for the match at 5*-3, but couldn't convert on two match points and was broken for 5-4*. A tense game followed in which Tiafoe got to 15-40 (on a passing shot that sent Jaziri sprawling on the court) but Jaziri stood firm and got to game point. A stout-hearted Tiafoe finally got the break on a Jaziri ball that just went long.

"Good win," said Tiafoe. "5-3, started getting a little - not necessarily tight, just thinking he's going to go away, because his body language was getting a little bit bad. 5-4, still battling, trying to get that win, trying to get it done. There's a lot at stake the next three weeks," he noted, no doubt thinking about the USTA's Australian Open main draw wild card.

"Happy to get the straight-sets win. I've had a lot of matches where I've been up, giving it away lately. Happy I closed."

He's also happy he was able to overcome this little mishap toward the end of the first set.

Joining Krueger and those six teens in the second round was 28-year-old Alex Kuznetsov, who beat Takanyi Garanganga 5-7 7-6 (4) 6-0.

By his own admission, Kuznetsov has had a "horrible" year. Even when up a break in the first set against the qualifier, he said he wasn't playing well. "It was ugly out there, but I figured it out the second set and played great the third set."

Zimbabwean Garanganga was getting most of the applause throughout the match. Kuznetsov said he was "bugged" a little bit by the lack of home country support. "When you're out there, you're always searching for something to motivate you, and I kind of used that as a little bit of motivation, and it worked out for me."

(Worth noting: both Kuznetsov and Rubin noted the courts were slower than they expected.)

The lone non-American to win today was David Rice, a 26-year-old Brit who upset #2 seed Australian James Duckworth 4-6 6-4 6-2 for his career-best win. (Note that Rice upset Michael Mmoh, yet another remarkable American teen, in three sets in the final round of qualies.)

"I just started believing more," said Rice about coming back from a set down against such a highly ranked player. "Stepped up and went for it more."

So anyway, back to Krueger. On Wednesday, the young-but-not-as-young-as-the-others Texan plays his very good friend Bjorn Fratangelo, against whom he's 0-4 in pro matches. "He's come out in top in all the tournament matches. Things have been different in practice matches but obviously practice doesn't count," he said. "We know each other so well. Hopefully one of these I'll be able to snag a win."

With regard to the American teen phenomenon, Krueger said, "I feel like Bjorn and I both get overshadowed compared to them." But, he noted, there was a good reason for that. "I wasn't doing what they're doing at their age, that's for sure." 

Does the success of the current crop of teens push him, I asked Krueger? "100%. And hopefully I push them. Hopefully they can learn from me. I've been on the circuit what, 3, 3 1/2 years now? I feel like I'm a professional, know what to do now. Certainly seeing those guys do well just makes me hungrier. I think it's the same for everyone."

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