Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Veterans make a stand in Wednesday Charlotteville action

Mitch Krueger & Bjorn Fratangelo, after their warm-up,
before their match. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
Yesterday was about the youngsters. Today was about the veterans.

The average age of Tuesday's singles winners at the Charlottesville Men's Pro Challenger was 20.44, with only two winners over 21 years old. The average age of Wednesday's singles winners was 26.4, with no winners under 22 years old.

It was a good day to have been around the block. The older (in some cases by only a few months) player won all five matches.

The oldest winner, by a good bit, was 32-year-old Frederick Nielsen, the Danish former doubles specialist who is mainly focused on singles now (in a reversal of the traditional tennis progression). [Edited to add: Nielsen has since informed me that he was "never a doubles specialist. I appreciate the correction!] Nielsen upset #7 seed Blaz Kavcic 6-3 5-7 6-4 in a first round match that was held until today to allow both men to fly in from Europe, where they'd both played Davis Cup relegation ties. (Denmark was sent down to Europe/Africa Group II by Sweden in an incredibly close tie; Slovenia stayed in Group I by beating Lithuania 5-0.)

"I was very good in my execution," said Nielsen about his match today. "I had a game plan and I stuck to it. I was able to keep him on the back foot enough. It was very close. I thought it was a very good tennis match."

Next in line, age-wise, was 28-year-old Dimitar Kutrovsky, a Bulgarian who was dwarfed in stature by his American opponent, 19-year-old Ernesto Escobedo. Escobedo started poorly, going down two breaks in the first set before righting the ship for a 5-4* lead. But he couldn't maintain his form, and donated the 5-5 game with errors seemingly out of nowhere.

The second set proceeded on serve until 4-4, when again, Escobedo's form fell apart. He ended up losing the last 12 points of the match and perfectly illustrated the difficulty so many young players have maintaining a consistently high level day to day.

Kutrovsky isn't the player you want to lose form against. He hits the ball with two hands from both sides, is quick as heck, and can disguise his shots so well.

"His forehand is definitely the bigger shot, he serves pretty good too," said Kutrovsky. "So I just tried to take advantage of his backhand and his second serve because his second serve is not as good as his first obviously. Whenever he missed his first serve, I tried to apply pressure and just hang on and try to move him around so he doesn't just crush forehands and dictate play."

Next oldest was American Tim Smyczek (27), the third seed (and highest seed remaining in the tournament), who beat countrymate Sekou Bangoura 6-3 7-6(6) in a match that featured plenty of long, grinding rallies -- exactly the kind of tennis Smyczek likes to play.

The statistical story of the match was a simple one: Bangoura was 0-6 in converting break points (all in the second set), while Smyczek was 1-1 (it came in the first set).

"He played a great match," noted Smyczek. "Made adjustments from the last time we played in Columbus a few weeks ago," a match Smyczek won 6-3 6-3. "He's gotten a lot better later lately. He's working hard on his game and it's paying off for him."

Bangoura was happy with his form, but rued his missed opportunities. "Definitely had a lot of chances - a lot of break chances - so I was right there," he said. "Now it's just about capitalizing on them."

In the nightcap, 23-year-old Henri Laaksonen upset #4 seed and fellow 23-year-old Ryan Harrison, 7-5 7-5.

The first game of the match set the tone. Although Harrison held, Laaksonen hit four massive winners in the game. And for most of the match, he kept the ball deep and kept Harrison -- who is now working with Grant Stafford to try to improve his court positioning -- under pressure. The pressure was felt most acutely at 5-5 in each set.

In the first instance, Laaksonen hit three winners to get to 15-40, then Harrison dumped a backhand into the net to get broken, and Laaksonen served out the set. In the second instance, Harrison got to ad-in, and hit a big serve that Laaksonen floated back. Harrison, taking what he determined was a "calculated risk," let the ball go rather than risk a tough high backhand volley from behind the service line. Unfortunately for him, the ball landed on the baseline and eventually, the Swiss broke and served out the match. The final game saw him go down 15-40, but as he did all night, he came up big when facing break points, ending up 10/11 in that statistic.

The youngest match of the day was played between Bjorn Fratangelo (22) and Mitchell Krueger (21). These two are great friends who warmed each other up before the match. "We always do," said Fratangelo. "There's no bad blood at all."

Both are solid players having career years. Their head-to-head record, however, is lopsided as all get-out: Fratangelo started the day with a 4-0 record against Krueger in pro matches. He ended the day with a 5-0 record against Krueger.

When asked how tough it is playing against Krueger, Fratangelo said, "It's really tough. I don't think either of us likes it. We don't think about it, we just take it as it is, we play each match the best we can. But sometimes the tennis isn't pretty at all."

Krueger started the match well, holding in a grueling 20-point third game, then breaking the Pennsylvanian in the next game for 3*-1 and going up 40-15. He couldn't quite handle success, though, and dropped the next four points to lose the break. Fratangelo then broke in the 9th game and served for the first set at 5*-4, but was broken at 15 by Krueger. The players then exchanged holds (Fratangelo saving a break point in his service game) and Fratangelo outplayed Krueger to win the breaker 7-4.

The second set featured mostly easy holds until the 7th game, when Fratangelo double faulted at 30-30 and was broken the next point. Kreuger successfully served out the set and was amped at the possibility that he might finally get the win over his buddy.

But Fratangelo got super stout in the third, particularly on return: he reached break point in all four of Krueger's service games and broke in three of them. And just like that, Bjorn Fratangelo was the youngest man, so far, into the quarterfinals.

Doubles winners on the day included Krueger with Swiss Adrien Bossel, Americans Chase Buchanan and Tennys Sandgren, Canadians Adil Shamasdin and Peter Polansky, Nielsen with this past weekend's Davis Cup doubles foe Johan Brunstrom of Sweden, and in a quarterfinal, Ireland's David O'Hare with Brit Joe Salisbury (the two played doubles together at the University of Memphis). Notably, O'Hare's former doubles partner, countryman James Cluskey (29), just announced his retirement from pro tennis earlier in the day. 24-year-old O'Hare, on the other hand, is just getting started.

Score one for the youngsters.

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