Friday, November 6, 2015

Paul and Rubin reach first career Challenger semis

Tommy Paul, before he went blond. ©Rustam Tahir
It took just under an hour, Tommy Paul's latest tennis feat. In beating fellow American Alex
Kuznetsov 6-3 6-1 at the Charlottesville Men's Pro Challenger, Paul reached his first semifinal at this level. He became the sixth American teen to accomplish that in 2015.

The fifth such player, Noah Rubin, achieved that milestone just a couple of hours previously.

It's been a heady year for these up-and-coming Americans -- not just Paul and Rubin, but the lot of them. There's no doubt that they're aware of what each other is accomplishing on court, whether at the junior level (7 different players reaching junior grand slam semifinals in the past 2 years, 5 reaching finals, and 4 winning titles), in the Futures (6 guys with titles this year), or in Challengers.

And more often than not, they're doing things the hard way -- none of the players is getting too many wild cards, in part because there are so many potential candidates for a given tournament, the USTA wants to parcel them out evenly. So they're going through qualifying, as Paul successfully did at the US Open, and as Noah has done at this tournament.

But yeah, they're aware of what each other is doing, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it motivates them to work that much harder, and it gives them confidence that they, too, can achieve certain things. On the other hand, it puts significant pressure on them to keep up. None of them wants to be left behind. How they respond to this pressure will be massive going forward.

The current indoor challenger swing has a little added pressure, in that the American player (teen or not) who accumulates the most points in two out of the three tournaments (Charlottesville, Knoxville, Champaign) will get a wild card to the Australian Open. Again, they're all motivated by that. But it also adds more pressure.

And tomorrow, in the Charlottesville semifinals, another element of motivation and pressure will be added. All four semifinalists (Paul and Rubin, plus Switzerland's Henri Laaksonen and Bulgarian Dimitar Kutrovsky) missed the direct entry cut-off for the next tournament, in Knoxville. Because qualifying for that tournament doesn't start until Sunday, the same day as the Charlottesville finals, only the two finalists will be eligible for the two Knoxville special exempt (SE) spots available for players who do so well the prior week they would have to miss qualifying.

So Saturday's winners will have a free pass into Knoxville, while the losers will have to play up to three rounds of qualifying (unless one or more gets a wild card, which is certainly possible).

And, as one more bonus motivator/pressurizer, all four semifinalists will be seeking their first-career Challenger final.

Match reports

While this reporter was on self-imposed assignment in Williamsburg at the ITA Women's Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame (story forthcoming), Kutrovsky was upsetting the highest-ranked player left in the draw, American Tim Smyczek, 6-4 6-4. Kutrovsky broke early in the first set and at the end of the second set, and that was all it took, as he saved the only two break points he faced in the match.

Kutrovsky will take on Paul next. Paul was powerful and accurate with his serves, returns, and groundstrokes, putting increasing pressure on Kuznetsov with each point.

"I was playing really well from the ground today," said the 18-year-old. "I didn't really have many errors at all. And I served better today than in past matches, so that helped a lot."

The match wouldn't even have been as close as it was had Paul not had a loose game while serving up 5*-1 in the first set. Kuznetsov broke and then had a quick hold for 5-3. "I knew I let the set slip a little bit," said Paul. "I knew if I wanted to start the second set well, I had to close the first set out with some authority." He did so, at love. "After I closed it out, I had a little confidence going into the second. He served first, and I felt like I could break him right away. We had a really long game the first game, and I got the break, and I tried to keep rolling with that the whole second set." He did just that, losing only one relatively meaningless game at 4-0*.

As for his semifinal, it will be the second meeting in a month for the two players -- they last played in the final qualifying round of the Sacramento Challenger. Paul won that 6-2 4-6 6-3. Of the tricky Kutrovsky, Paul said, "He can hit winners from a lot of places in the court, so I have to be patient with that, be quick and change the pace up with him."

The other semifinal will pit Rubin against Laaksonen for the first time. Rubin beat fellow American teen Stefan Kozlov 6-4 6-4 in a topsy-turvy match. Rubin went up 5-0 in the first set before having to break at 5-4* to win the set (Kozlov even had a 30-0 lead in that game). Rubin then went down a break in the second before surging ahead to serve for the match at 5*-3 thanks to a remarkable running forehand winner followed by a Kozlov double fault.

Kozlov wasn't done, though, and promptly broke Rubin to get back on serve at 4*-5. But in a long, hard-fought final game, Rubin finally broke for the win.

"He's a mental player," said 19-year-old Rubin of 17-year-old Kozlov. "He puts you into this lull and makes you play his game after a while and if you don't keep perfect focus, you can see, 5-0 to 5-4. So it can happen really quickly. I should have known after playing him so many times, but he's a very good tennis player, so expect the unexpected."

Looking ahead to his match against Laaksonen, Rubin commented, "He has a tremendous forehand, he moves well. I'll see how well my defense matches up against him."

23-year-old Laaksonen, born in Finland to a Finnish mother and Swiss father, has the unusual distinction of having played for two Davis Cup teams in his relatively short career. He played with the Finnish team in 2009 (winning a five set match in his only rubber), then moved to Switzerland, and over the past three years, has been on and off the Swiss team. In 2013, he took a set off Tomas Berdych in a live rubber. In 2014, the year the Swiss won the Davis Cup, he was on the team in the second of four ties but didn't play any matches. (He also says he didn't receive any memento despite having been on the team.)  This year, he had two five-set singles wins against eventual finalist Belgium, beating Ruben Bemelmans (coming from two sets down) and Steve Darcis (coming from two sets to one down).

All that is to say despite his current ranking being outside the Top 100, Laaksonen can play. In beating Bjorn Fratangelo 6-3 3-6 6-3, Laaksonen played great when it counted, serving seven aces in the final set, getting back ball after well-struck Fratangelo ball, and holding his nerve when serving for the match, holding from 15-40 just like he did in his second round match against Ryan Harrison.

"I know I have the potential to beat Top 100 guys," said Laaksonen, as he proved with Harrison and Fratangelo, both of whom have been just outside the Top 100 this year. He has struggled with a shoulder injury most of the year, but is finally feeling healthy.

When asked what separates him and his fellow Challenger players from the Top 100, Laaksonen said, "Guys who are 300 ranked, if you see them on the practice courts, you can't tell the difference. The Top 100 guys are just more consistent. I know I can play, but I have to bring it every week, not just twice a year."

He's definitely brought it so far this week. And he's the highest-ranked player remaining in the tournament. The question for him and his fellow semifinalists: who can bring it the most in the final weekend of the tournament?

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