Question and Answer: Jarmere Jenkins (Part 2)

Jenkins found much success in Australia

Jenkins found success in Australia

Jarmere Jenkins, an NCAA champion at the University of Virginia, talked to us a little over a year ago as he began his journey on the pro tour. You can read that Q&A here. 2014 saw Jenkins go through some incredible highs as well as some forgettable lows. At 24, he cracked the top 200 for the first time, and finished the year at no. 192 in the world. We spoke to Jenkins on a variety of subjects.

The Tennis Nerds: First full year on tour, what stood out to you the most?

Jarmere Jenkins: How important faith, family and friends are. This is a brutal sport to play alone. I’m convinced you can’t do it by yourself. Had it not been for them I would have quit a long time ago.

TTN: Finally the offseason, got any plans?

Jenkins: I’ll be in Boca doing on court with USTA and working on my fitness with Richard Woodruff. Just trying to maximize that time in preparation for Australian Open quallies.

TTN: A large majority of your points came from challengers and futures in Australia, what about that country made you so successful?

Jenkins: I honestly don’t know. I’ve developed some really good relationships over there so it’s kinda like home away from home at this point. Could be because it’s so far away. I know if I lose a match I can’t hop on a plane and be home in a couple hours. Just have to go to work and bring it every single day. Seems to be working.

TTN: You are certainly “earning” your way up the ladder. Other than French Open quallies, you played exclusively ITFs and Challengers. How tough is that?

Jenkins: It’s really tough. But nothing feels better than earning your way up the ladder. I’ve played tournaments where I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. Now I feel like I’m putting in the work and paying my dues to belong.

TTN: Playing off that, prize money at those levels is pretty brutal. ATP site has you at $27K(that’s without your last futures title). You picked up a lot of points, but how do you manage to stay positive when the paychecks are so low?

Jenkins: I’m crazy.

TTN: How prevalent, in your experiences, is match-fixing? Have you seen it/heard about it?

Jenkins:  I receive messages and hate mail about it through my Facebook account. But never from players or coaches. I’ve heard about a couple instances or rumors. But nothing firsthand.

TTN: When we talked last year you said fitness was a key point of focus for your game. How has that progressed?

Jenkins: Yes. I’m stoked that I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’m witnessing my hard work pay off. Credit to my trainer Richard and his impact performance team in Florida. He’s really helped me take my fitness to the next level and I still have so many levels more to improve on.

TTN: You had various fellow American’s traveling to the same tournaments as you throughout the year(Klahn, Krueger etc), how important is it to have friends out there with you?

Jenkins: Very important. We all have the same goals plus I grew up with Klahn. It helps because we push each other in practice everyday to get better. We’re all trying to take American tennis to the top.

TTN: With that futures title, you move up inside the the top 200. Any significance in that?

Jenkins: Yes. Just a tribute to the hard work and sacrifices I’ve made to get there. Definitely wasn’t an easy road but I’m excited and grateful for it. My ultimate goal is much further than that.

TTN: Gotta talk about your EPIC tweet

– what was going through your head at that time?

Jenkins: Tennis is a cruel sport sometimes. Up 6-3,5-3 40-15 serving I tasted the defeat only to have it ripped from me. It was devastating at first and I was crushed. But it lit a fire in me that burned for weeks in Australia and I could easily argue had it not been for that loss I wouldn’t have played so well the following weeks.

TTN: Most in the tennis world have seen your legendary face-plant by now. What kind of reaction have you gotten for that and are you able to laugh about it now?

Jenkins: I’ve always thought it was hilarious. Probably the single most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. My ex-girlfriend was watching from the sideline. I’m pretty sure that destroyed any chance I’ll ever have of getting back with her! (laughing)

TTN: You built a solid base of points at the end of the year, what does your schedule look like for the start of 2015?

Jenkins: Noumea challenger. Aussie quallies. Maui challenger. Then back “home” to Australia for some challengers.

TTN: Do you think next year is when you can make the breakthrough to the tour level? You’re not far off now. How hungry are you?

Jenkins: I think 2015 will be a special year for me. I’m all in. I really believe I have something special within me to make the breakthrough. In due time.

Kozlov Makes History Sweeping Orange Bowl Titles Capping Huge 2014

Mmozlov

Stefan Kozlov and Michael Mmoh Celebrate after winning the Orange Bowl Doubles Title. Photo via Mmoh’s Instagram

 

American Stefan Kozlov has been in his fair share of big matches. In December of 2013, Kozlov reached the final of the ITF Orange Bowl, but fell in a close three set match to fellow American Francis Tiafoe. In 2014, Kozlov had reached the finals of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon Junior Championships. On each occasion he fell just short.

He flipped the script Sunday, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece 2-6 6-3 6-2 to claim the Orange Bowl singles title. Only a couple of hours later he teamed with Michael Mmoh to defeat the number 2 seeds Yungseong Chung and Seong Chan Hong 6-4 7-6(5) to win the doubles title. Kozlov became the first player since Mariano Zabaleta(ARG) in 1995 to win both the Orange Bowl singles and doubles title in the same year.

A common storyline in the U.S. tennis world has been the lack of success in men’s tennis. The last American man to win a Grand Slam was Andy Roddick at the 2003 US Open. Roddick was also the last U.S. man to hold the number 1 ranking.

American tennis fans may not have to wait much longer. Kozlov is leading the charge amongst a large pack of talented juniors.

There are currently twelve Americans in the top 100 of the ITF Junior boys rankings, and as recently as last week there were four in the top 11. Francis Tiafoe fell out this week because he opted not to play the Orange Bowl, which he won in 2013. For the first time in over two decades, six Americans made the quarterfinals of the Orange Bowl. American Sam Riffice also became the first man since Grigor Dimitrov to claim Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl U16 titles in back to back weeks.

Perhaps what makes these guys so fun to watch is that they are all seemingly great friends. Just take a look through social media and you’ll quickly learn how much fun they have cracking jokes and messing around. When one guy does well, the others are always quick to congratulate them.

The U.S. will finish 2014 with three boys in the top 10 as well as eight in the top 50, with Kozlov leading the way at no. 3 in the world, having played only seven junior events all year.

Kozlov spent a larger portion of his schedule playing professionally, and came up just short on multiple occasions. He notably pushed top 100 player Sam Groth to a third set tiebreak in Washington DC.

“Whenever I get an opportunity to play in these tournaments my level rises so much. I think that I’m there with these guys to be honest,” Kozlov told The Tennis Nerds in July.

He certainly proved that statement to be true, and his success culminated with an incredible week at the Sacramento Challenger in October. As a wildcard, Kozlov defeated Ryan Harrison, J.P. Smith, Rhyne Williams and Tim Smyczek before losing out to Sam Querrey in the final. Kozlov’s on court IQ is unprecedented, and it was on display as he outsmarted players well beyond his age.

What made his accomplishment even more impressive was that each of his wins required three sets. He was even cramping at one point in the third set against then no. 99 Smyczek.

Kozlov had issues in the past with his fitness, but spent good blocks of time in 2014 to improve that aspect of his game.

He told Colette Lewis that his training block in November with the USTA was very productive. “I went to Cali for about three weeks to work with Jose and Pat Etcheberry. It was fun, but it wasn’t pleasant,” he said.

The Macedonian-born American stands at almost 6 feet tall, which his not exactly huge in this sport.

“Moving forward, tennis is a very physical sport, and with my height and size matches are going to be really physical,” Kozlov told The Tennis Nerds in Washington.

Kozlov’s hard work paid off, finishing the year with a singles/doubles sweep of the Orange Bowl. He finished the year as the highest ranked 16 year old in the ATP at no. 467. Most of those points came from the Sacramento Challenger, and won’t come off his ranking until October of 2015.

American tennis fans have had their patience tested, but that test should be coming to an end soon. The future is now.

Breaking Down The ATP Prize Money Increase: It Makes Sense

News broke Friday that the ATP had announced significant prize money increases for both the Masters 1000 and ATP World Tour 250 events in the years to come.

Here’s the full statement:

The ATP has announced significant increases over the next four years that will see overall player compensation on the ATP World Tour reach US$135 million by 2018. Player compensation at ATP World Tour events in 2015 will exceed US$100 million for the first time.

The increases at ATP events are a testament to the sustained success of men’s professional tennis, as well as demonstrating the ATP’s confidence in the strength of its product and projected growth in future years.

The biggest increases in player compensation come at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 category, with tournaments providing annual increases of 11%, and with the ATP contributing a further 3% increase, resulting in a 14% annual increase in that category through to 2018. Player compensation at the ATP World Tour 250s is set to increase at an average of 3.5% per year during the same period.

The latest decisions at Masters 1000 and 250-level mean that player compensation is now confirmed across all three ATP World Tour tournament categories for a four-year period. Player compensation for a five-year period for the ATP World Tour 500 category was decided at the end of 2013.

Many in the tennis world voiced their opinions on the increase(and what didn’t increase). A recurring theme across twitter Friday was that both the ATP Challenger Tour and the ITF Futures Tour were being neglected from the prize money increase. These lower levels of professional tennis have been brought up much more in recent months, notably for their poor conditions and lack of funding.

The Tennis Nerds are especially keen followers of the Challenger Tour, and we always wish for nothing but success for the endless “Foot Soldiers of Tennis“, if you will. Challenger tennis is one of the purest forms of competition; as Bradley Klahn told us in 2013, “every day there is a person across the net trying to steal your lunch money.”

However, the popular notion that the ATP should “restructure” their prize money breakdown to include the Challenger tour is simply misguided.

And before we get too far, let’s remember that Futures tournaments are run by the ITF, not the ATP. The ATP has no responsibility to maintain funding at those events. Prize money at that level is solely on the shoulders of the ITF.

If you take only one thing from this piece, let it be this: tennis is entertainment.

Just like all other sanctioned sporting leagues, the Association of Tennis Professionals is, quite simply, entertainment. Now this may seem obvious, but it is critical to understanding where and why prize money is distributed.

Tennis players are not paid for winning tennis matches. Tennis players are paid because people(fans) are paying to watch them. Whether they are watching in person, on TV, or online, each fan contributes to the overall revenue of the ATP

Masters 1000’s, who are receiving the largest chunk of the increase(14% increase annually through 2018), have been widely successful over the last decade. With three of the greatest players to ever play the sport at the top of the game, attendance, sponsorships as well as TV broadcast numbers have gone through the roof. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Indian Wells set their attendance record in 2014 for the eight consecutive year, with 431,527 fans attending the tournament. (Indian Wells is a joint ATP/WTA event.)
  • Cincinnati also set their attendance record in 2014, with 191, 752 fans coming through the gates. (Also a combined event)
  • Shanghai has been voted as the Masters 1000 tournament of the year for the past five years. Their attendance, TV broadcast deals and sponsorships have increased rapidly since the tournaments inception in 2008.
  • Toronto and Montreal (Roger’s Cup) set their attendance records in 2010 and 2011, respectively; years when the ATP event was held in each city. (The ATP and WTA alternate venues each year)

To put it simply, these are the tournaments that matter. Outside of the four Majors, the nine Masters 1000 events generate the most revenue in the tennis world. Tournaments are ever-expanding; new stadiums and facilities are being announced at an astonishing rate.

On the other side of the net is the Challenger tour. While some tournaments are successful in drawing crowds and sponsorships, the tour as a whole has struggled to maintain relevance. And those challengers that do bring in crowds, such as Mons(broke attendance record in ’14) and Sarasota, have higher prize money and points available. Those tournaments were not simply given the $100,000 title, they earned it by proving relevance and quality entertainment.

The Napa Challenger has been mentioned as a candidate to increase their total financial commitment in the coming years. That is not going to simply be handed to them by the ATP; they’ll need to secure sponsorships and promote the tournament on their own. I’m sure they’ll be able to do so, but not because of a gift from the ATP.

There is a separate conversation to be had about the ATP’s promotion(or lack thereof) of challengers. However, do consider that nearly every tournament now has at least one streamed court, and Josh Meiseles writes a weekly recap of each tournament. This is certainly an improvement from years past, and perhaps with a growing audience, the Challenger Tour will eventually get a prize money increase of its own. But it would get that increase because they deserved it.

Again, let me stress that the The Tennis Nerds are huge backers of the Challenger Tour. We find it to be great entertainment. But, at least for the time being, a majority of tennis fans do not.

Top 10 Statement Wins on the ATP World Tour in 2014

“Statement Win”–not only defeating your opponent, but accomplishing other victories in the process. Whether it be overcoming a lopsided head-to-head record, putting a beat-down on a top rival, getting your name out to the world, or simply playing your best tennis, a statement win is about more than just a notch in the win column. (See also: highlight win, signature win, etc.) 

2014 was another incredible year in tennis, and with the season wrapping up, The Tennis Nerds will look back and highlight some of the best moments from the past twelve months. We’ll try to stray from the norm–“Best points” “Best matches” etc–and give a little variety for our readers. You can find the Top 10 matches of the year just about anywhere. Today, I countdown the Top 10 Statement Wins of 2014. Comment if you agree/disagree or have thoughts on the best statement wins of the year!

10. Kei Nishikori d. Novak Djokovic 6-3 1-6 7-6(4) 6-3 US Open SF

Nishikori was the young gun who made the best breakthrough in 2014, finishing the year ranked a career high #5 in the world and reaching a Grand Slam final in the process. After two five-set marathon wins over Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka, few if any expected Nishikori to have much left in the tank for his Semifinal showdown with Novak Djokovic. He had been hampered by a recurring left foot injury for much of the summer, and looked out of the tournament when he took a medical timeout trailing two sets to one against Raonic. To add insult to injury, Nishikori had spent over 8 hours on court in his previous two matches. A windy day in Flushing led to some inconsistent play early, but after Djokovic won the second set 6-1, Nishikori looked on the ropes. He refused to give in to the sweltering heat of that day, and pulled off a shocking upset over the World #1. More shocking? He beat him at his own game.

9. Stan Wawrinka d. Roger Federer 4-6 7-6(5) 6-2 Monte Carlo F

The fact that Wawrinka is only on this list once is probably a huge mistake on my part. His 5 set epic over Djokovic was deserving, but I felt that this win was actually more significant in terms of mental strength. Coming into the final, Federer led the head to head matchup with his Swiss friend 13-1. FIFTEEN TO ONE. Federer owned his compatriot. Stan struggled not as much with forehands and backhands, but with his head. Mentally he was inferior. So when he lost the first set–playing pretty well–the outcome of the match looked clear. Federer was going to win his first Monte Carlo title. Wawrinka started to hold serve much easier in the second set, and although he gave up a break lead, the Lausanne native sealed the second set tiebreak with a serve and volley overhead winner. He ran away with the third set, tearing the cover off the ball on both wings. Federer was not playing poorly whatsoever, but Wawrinka was just too good.

8. Federer d. Murray 6-0 6-1 ATP World Tour Finals RR

By scoreline alone this one could have been number one. Andy Murray had a subpar 2014 campaign, but looked to be back in good form during the fall season. He won titles in Shenzhen, Vienna and Valencia to earn himself a spot in the World Tour Finals. His match with Federer was his final round robin match, and he needed a straight sets win to reach the semifinals. Playing in front of a home London crowd, Murray laid an egg, while Federer was on fire. If it weren’t for a few bad unforced errors at 6-0 5-0, Federer would have delivered the Scot a double bagel. Still, Federer proved that he was in far superior form, attacking second serves and approaching the net at will. He was off the court in 56 minutes, handing Murray the worst loss of his career.

It was so bad there aren’t even highlights on YouTube! (But here’s a Hotshot)

7. Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal 6-3 6-3 Miami F

Djokovic came into the Miami final having just won Indian Wells. He was attempting the difficult IW-Miami double in back to back weeks, and had to face one Rafael Nadal in the final. What unfolded was a comprehensive, dominant performance. Djokovic went at the Nadal forehand relentlessly, which opened his two best attacking shots; the inside out forehand and backhand down the line. He was in full flight on return, putting everything Nadal threw at him within feet of the baseline. The last few matches of this rivalry had been back and forth, with Nadal winning 3 of the last 5. You felt like this match would serve as a good barometer to show where each player was at, and it did. Match point was pretty decent as well.

6. Marin Cilic d. Roger Federer 6-3 6-3 6-4 US Open SF

Hard to find words for this one. Just a look at the score pretty much tells the story. After looking….shaky against Gilles Simon in the fourth round of the US Open, Cilic started playing the best tennis of his career. This match was astonishing in particular. His liability in years past was often his forehand, but he was outhitting even Federer on that side. He was standing up on the baseline, giving his opponent nothing to work with. Federer wasn’t great, but he also wasn’t bad, which made this result one of the most surprising of 2014. The crowd tried to get Federer into the match throughout, but Cilic silenced them on every occasion with booming serves and flat, penetrating groundstrokes. Cilic claimed his first win in six tries over the 17-time major winner, and went on to beat Nishikori for his first Grand Slam title.

5. Rafael Nadal d. Andy Murray 6-3 6-2 6-1 French Open SF

It was a down year by Nadal’s insane standard, but he managed to win his 9th Rolland Garros title in relatively simple fashion, dropping only two sets the entire tournament. His most impressive performance came in the semifinals against Murray, who appeared to be back in good form after struggling with his return from back injury. Murray had taken Nadal the distance in Rome just two weeks prior, and this semifinal had the chance to replicate that competitive scoreline. It didn’t. Things started off badly for Murray, and they didn’t get any better. Nadal had time on all his shots, and was dictating play from the get-go. Yes, Nadal is the undisputed clay court GOAT, but to beat one of his best rivals, only losing 6 games in the process was a massive effort.

http://youtu.be/UDS-Mgh7wbg (FFT disables embedded video)

4. Novak Djokovic d. Tomas Berdych 6-0 6-2 Beijing F

Beijing seems to treat Djokovic pretty well. He’s won the 500 event all five times he’s chosen to play it. In fact, he’s only dropped *THREE SETS* in 24 matches played. The final in 2014 was, in a way, just another dominant performance from the Serb. But this might have been the best match Djokovic has ever played. Save for getting broken at 6-0 5-0, the world #1 played flawless tennis. He broke Berdych’s serve six times and never looked troubled. The quotes from both players after the match tell the story.

Berdych: “I just said to my coach now that I probably played over 700 matches in my career, and I met guys like Andre, Roger, all those probably in their best times. But I have never, ever experienced anything like that.”

Djokovic: “This has been, in the circumstances, probably the best performance of any final in my career. I have played some great finals, had some convincing wins, some straight-set wins against top rivals. But with this kind of performance and with this domination result-wise, I mean it’s never happened.”

3. Roger Federer d. Novak Djokovic 6-4 6-4 Shanghai SF

As stated in #4, Djokovic was playing unbelievably well during the fall swing. When Federer and Djokovic set the semifinal showdown in Shanghai, Novak was the betting favorite. Still, most in tennis expected a fascinating encounter. Well, it was fascinating. Djokovic played well, but the guy on the other side of the net was a different animal. Federer turned back the clock, and played as well as I’ve seen from him in years. The Edberg net-attacking gameplan coupled with an aggressive baseline game put Federer in vintage form. Vintage is a word that is used too often with Federer, but this really was a vintage performance. Federer halted Djokovic’s incredible 28 match win streak in China, sending a message that he was not going to finish the year quietly.

Federer: “It was a great match, I agree. I think I played very well. There was nothing in the game today that wasn’t working. I think it was a high-level match. I’m unbelievably happy with the way it went.”

Djokovic: “I think I did not play too bad.It’s just that he played everything he wanted to play. He played the perfect match. I think he’s going to tell you how he felt, but that’s how I felt he played. He played an amazing match.”

2. Grigor Dimitrov d. Andy Murray 6-1 7-6(5) 6-2 Wimbledon QF

I’m guessing that many of you will think I’m putting this too high on the list. (And please, let me know what you think!) But when I first came up with the idea for this Top 10, this match was the first thing that came to mind. Murray(on the wrong side of this list for the third time) was truly playing well at Wimbledon through the first four rounds. He had not dropped a set, while Dimitrov had just scraped through a 5 setter with Alex Dolgopolov. But Dimitrov was on a mission during this quarterfinal. He had already made the QFs at the Australian Open, and won two titles in 2014–Acapulco and Bucharest. But the Bulgarian made his official arrival to the top of the sport at SW19, blowing Murray off the court in the process. After every game you thought that Murray would find a way back, but he didn’t come close. Dimitrov’s shotmaking was incredible, and his backhand slice proved critical in a straight set dismantling of the defending champion.

1. Nick Kyrgios d. Rafael Nadal 7-6(5) 5-7 7-6(5) 6-3 Wimbledon R16

Finally! Number 1. (It took way too long to write this) Is there really any other option here? Kyrgios, 19, went out onto Center Court at the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, and took out Rafael Nadal in stunning fashion. Nadal certainly did play poorly. The match was taken out of his hands by the young Australian, who was bursting with confidence. Kyrgrios’ win was pretty much the definition of a breakout performance. Ranked outside the top 100 at the time of their meeting, Kyrgios looked like he belonged from the onset. Dozens of aces, massive winners, and even a jaw-dropping tweener set the tone as Kyrgios shocked the tennis world. (Actually, he actually shocked the ENTIRE world because of the Drake Drama!)

Tennis Nerd Takeaways From The US Open

Photo Credit: Ricky Dimon

Photo Credit: Ricky Dimon

  • A night session on Arthur Ashe stadium is completely different that any other live tennis experience. In the early rounds, just about everybody in the stadium is having a full-boar conversation with the person next to them. The two players trading groundstrokes below serve as perfect background noise for two friends catching up on life. Even I, a tennis nerd, have fallen into the trap. I’ve watched many of these night session matches with Ben Rothenberg, and we hold a conversation for pretty much an entire match. While most of our talking points are tennis related, the atmosphere on Ashe lends itself to gossip, speculation, and banter. And let me clarify: I love everything about the atmosphere here. Sure, the tennis knowledge of some may be lacking, but they’re here for the show, the whole package, not just the tennis match. However, when a match becomes competitive, the fans become wildly invested. Example A: Roger Federer vs Gael Monfils.
  • Another thing I notice about the crowd here is how each different section of the stadium conducts themselves. We start at the bottom bowl, where, as media, I am lucky enough to sit. Obviously these seats are not cheap. In fact, unless you a)know somebody, b) sneak in(many try, few succeed) or c)pay the big bucks, you will not get down to the this level. It’s an interesting crowd. You have the two player boxes, the media section, and then a lot of well-dressed, well-spoken fans who are, most of the time, rather subdued. Next up is the box suites. This one is pretty self explanatory. Either you *really* know somebody, or you make a lot of money and can treat yourself to the perks of being in a suite. (Including but not limited to food, drinks, and alcohol) These people are generally less interested in the tennis being played; instead they socialize and catch up with friends. You also get the celebrities in the suites. (I must note that during Raonic/Nishikori’s 5 set, 2:26 a.m. match, there was only one box with people still in attendance, and they were very vocally supportive of Kei). I will group the promenade and upper deck into one fan base, and say that these are the the hardcore fans. They coordinate chants, yell out in support, wear shirts, and know all the players. You really start to figure out the differences in each fan group when a match starts to gain traction. If it’s starting to get good, the upper levels realize it first, slowly followed by the lower sections. Not sure why I find it intriguing, but I do.
  • Nick Kyrgios. There is not enough time or space for me to write sufficiently about the Australian rising star. Brian Phillips took many of my thoughts and put them into magically constructed words. Read here. The thing that stood out to me most was Nick walking out onto the biggest tennis stadium in the world, looking around, and totally owning the place. As a kid, I played a lot of hockey. Before a big tryout, my father would always tell me to “go out there and act like you’re better than them all.” I could rarely muster up that mindset. It’s all I could think of as Kyrgios destroyed the tennis ball, and his opponent Tommy Robredo, for the first set and a half under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium. His confidence was so pure, so innate. He *knew* he was “better than them all.” And he lost. In fact, he lost after being up 6-3 2-0 40-0. It spoke volumes about Robredo’s incredible resilience and fight. It also spoke volumes about how much Kyrgios still has to improve. His forehand is astounding. On many occasions, he didn’t even have his feet in the right position, and yet he was able to do mind-blowing things with the ball. I can’t even put into words how much potential the kid has. To sum it all up? At 2-5 in the fourth set, a fan yelled out, “you gotta get your swag back Nick!” On the next point, Kyrios hit a forehand winner and yelled “SWAG!” It was epic. It was hilarious. It was awesome. When I asked him about it after the match, Kyrgios simply said,”I just answered (the fan’s) question.”
  • Gael Monfils’ performance in New York made headlines; this time for mostly the right reasons. I’ve always been mystified, confused, and amazed with Monfils. Initially, I saw his talent and figured he should be in the top 5. After watching him for a few years I started to realize that he never really expected much out of himself, which often led to mediocre results, with the occasional(okay, on many occasions) hot shot mixed in. About halfway through 2013 I started to look at Monfils in a different light. His role in tennis is something we all have to realize and appreciate. Yes, he’s an entertainer. And if you can honestly say you’re not entertained watching him play…well then we can agree to disagree. But this US Open was wildly different in out viewing of Monfils. He was focused from the first ball. Through his first four matches, he was 12-0 in sets, and other than this incredible jumping forehand, his highlight reels weren’t on par with Gael the entertainer. He breezed through Richard Gasquet and Grigor Dimitrov. Those results were outstanding, and he looked as determined as ever. Even passing him in the halls–he was always in good spirits, yet looked unsatisfied with “just” reaching the quarterfinals. Of course you all know he went up two sets to one on Roger Federer, held two match points in the fourth set, before eventually falling to the Swiss man, 6-4 6-3 4-6 5-7 2-6. It was the best atmosphere I can remember on Ashe. I’m hesitant to say that Monfils will use this performance as a springboard for greater results. Part of me wants La Monf to just be himself, because he always makes me turn on the TV. But another part of me, a big part, wants *this* Monfils to stick around a while. Maybe win a slam? Just imagine what he would do for our sport.
  • My love for tennis comes from watching the ATP, and obviously all of my writing has covered men’s tennis. But there’s seriously something to be said about the WTA. This stemmed from another conversation I had with Rothenberg. I’ve watched a lot of women’s tennis over the last two years, and there are things that are truly incredible about the game. After getting off of work for the day, I sat down to watch Barbora Zahlavova Strycova face off against Eugenie Bouchard. Zahlavova Strycova is incredibly fun to watch. She talks to herself almost non-stop, and complains to her box on most given occasions.. She yells positively, and negatively, with both being hilarious and awesome. For me, the WTA has a few more “routine” scorelines(ie. 6-1 6-1), which can lend itself to less compelling entertainment. However, when a match is good, it’s great. The drama is unmatched, and you really never know what is going to happen next. Ivanovic/Sharapova in Montreal is the best example of this; I literally could not take my eyes off the screen. The WTA’s unpredictability is highly underrated and undervalued.
  • We now bring ourselves to the much maligned talking point: American Tennis. News broke this week that Patrick McEnroe, head of player development at the USTA, will be stepping down from his position after six years in charge. While American women have flourished(mainly in part to one Serena Williams) during his tenure, American men have struggled mightily. I don’t want to spend much time on the past though, because we’ve all heard that story a million times over. Let’s look at American men for the future. With Jared Donaldson, Stefan Kozlov, Francis Tiafoe, Michael Mmoh, Ernesto Escobedo and many others showing promise, things are going to turn around. It’s not a question of if, but when. Three-four years seems like the right target, with the majority of our talent-crop filling out their bodies and reaching their potential. American men’s tennis, simply put, is in the worst position they’ve been in for the last few decades. But they will rise back to the top, and it’s only a matter of time.
  • My thoughts on McEnroe’s tenure are up and down. I think Patrick was a great face and brand at the top of our developmental system. However, he held other large commitments such as being an ESPN analyst and commentator, which surely took time away from his more-than-full-time job at the USTA. That in itself is a huge conflict of interest. The idea to have one central training facility was good in theory, but they forced it on players and their families way too quickly. And if a player didn’t produce results in a short time frame, they were dismissed from the academy, and left on their own. With the USTA’s plan laid out to have another new training facility in Lake Nona, Florida, let’s hope that they can manage this one with greater transparency and value.
  • Kei Nishikori, at the time of this writing, is about two hours away from his first Grand Slam final. How he got there is surely the best story of this years US Open, at least on the men’s side. I sat with Michael Beattie as Nishikori took on Milos Raonic under the lights of Ashe. Though Nishikori looked as engaged and animated as we had ever seen, we doubted his chances of even finishing the match after going down two sets to one. He was once again being visited by the trainer for a right foot issue, and his movement looked 75% at best. But after the painkillers kicked in, Nishikori was a new man. He was back to his ball-striking best. Every groundstroke he hit seemed to land within a foot of the baseline, and before we knew it, Nishikori was serving for the match in the fifth set.
  • I have to pause that narrative for a second to talk about my most memorable moment in Flushing Meadows. As Nishikori and Raonic we’re playing through the night and into the morning, Beattie and I knew what was at stake history wise. Two other matches had finished at 2:26 A.M. at the US Open, and this one was on track to be remarkably close. As Nishikori broke in the fifth set, Beattie and I knew that this was going to be incredible close to the record. Before the final game, what was left of the crowd gave each player a standing ovation, which lasted about 30 seconds. The clock was now at 2:23. Nishikori raced out 30-0, two points from the match, and chances were looking slim. Raonic won the next point, and we gave a sigh of relief, because every second now counted. Nishikori went up 40-15, and just as the clock hit 2:25, he had trouble catching the balls from ball boy, which ended up delaying the match by about 30 seconds. The point started, and Beattie and I had our eyes locked on the clock, and the players, simultaneously. Nishikori came to the net, hit a great backhand volley cross-court, and it looked like the match was over. But Raonic somehow got to that ball. It was at his shoestrings, but he stuck his racket out and got it back over the net. As Nishikori hit the final volley winner to seal the victory, the clock ticked to 2:26, and the record had been tied, for a third time. I kid you not, as the wilson ball hit Nishikori’s strings, the clock turned, and Beattie and I went pretty nuts. It was almost a sense of pride, of fulfillment, for staying at the match the entire way. I don’t know why, but it was rewarding.
  • Back to Nishikori’s run. The Japan born right-hander’s main issue over the years has been staying healthy over a long stretch of matches. If you had told me, a Nishikori believer, that he would defeat Raonic, Wawrinka, and Djokovic, with none of those being straight sets, I would have probably laughed at you. What Kei has done is truly amazing, and speaks volumes for his work ethic and discipline. Oh, watching Michael Chang in the box during Nishikori’s matches is almost as fun as watching the match itself. Seeing somebody so invested in their player is refreshing.
  • Autographs. I don’t even know where to begin. You should start with the Wall Street Journal piece here. If you’re over the age of 14, and are asking for somebody’s autograph, are you in the right state of mind? If you are under the age of 14, and have never heard of the player you’re getting an autograph from, what value does it hold? Now, if you get a picture with a player, that is really cool. You can always remember that moment. But I’m not sure if that holds true for simply a players signature. I spent extensive time thinking  about the validity of autographs during my time in New York. I was eating breakfast one morning on the porch outside the media and player entrance to Ashe. Just outside the security guards was a young boy, maybe 10, with one of those big tennis balls made for autographs. He had the best strategy of anybody I had ever seen at attaining a signature from the players. In only 15 minutes, he must have gotten 15 signatures. I was enthralled in what I was watching, but soon started think about what those autographs actually mean. I don’t understand how a players scribbling can have any impact on a person. I’m pretty sure I’m the one who is completely lost here, because most people disagree with me. Please, in the comments below, convince me why an autograph can be so valuable. I want to be persuaded.
  • I’ve been rambling on for a while now, haven’t I. I’ll finish these notes, which I’ve worked on in-and-out for the last two weeks, with my thoughts on working vs watching a tennis tournament. I worked for the first 9 days of the tournament, and it’s an experience that I obviously enjoyed. But it’s also something that to some may seem routine, par for the course. I just watch tennis, log matches, tell the producers when something crazy happens, and create highlight clips at the end of matches. It sounds resoundingly easy, and in a sense, it was. But it’s not the kind of easy you’re thinking of. It’s hard work. It’s 12 hour days in an office. It’s 10 cups of coffee per day. But if you truly have a passion for tennis, an unbounding passion, it will not seem like such hard “work”. It will instead seem like hard “play”. I didn’t get much more than 6 hours of sleep per night, but that was by choice. Even if I had completed all my assigned matches for the day(which was usually around 8 p.m., sometimes later), I would get out to Ashe or any court that still had matches going. Most of my colleagues at ESPN, and I surely cannot blame them, went home, got some sleep, and prepared for the next day. But I truly am a tennis nerd, and the best part of being on the grounds was heading to the media room at 1 a.m. to be the only guy requesting Tommy Robredo questions in English. To sit back and chat with the few people that were still there about that amazing day that had just taken place, and how surely tomorrow would be better. If there was ever any doubt I wanted to go into tennis media(writing, tv, communications, who knows), it’s gone now. I loved every second of my time working at the US Open, and I sure as hell hope to be back next year.

A Conversation With Stefan Kozlov

Kozlov and good friend Noah Rubin pose with the American flag after the Wimbledon junior final. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Kozlov and good friend Noah Rubin pose with the American flag after the Wimbledon junior final. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

It’s no secret, American tennis(especially on the men’s side) has struggled mightily over the last ten years. So, naturally, everybody is looking for the next big American star. A name that has been talked about heavily is Stefan Kozlov, a 16 year old from Pembroke Pines, Florida. The American lost a tight three setter to big serving Sam Groth 6-3 6-7(5) 4-6 in the first round of qualifying at the Citi Open.

Born in Macedonia, Kozlov lived overseas until the age of one, when his family made the move to the United States. His game is a change of pace for American tennis fans. He doesn’t possess an enormously powerful serve, and although his forehand is a very good shot, but he is very solid in all aspects of the game. His biggest strength may well be his two handed backhand, which he can take very early. Kozlov recently reached the final of the Wimbledon Junior champaionship, losing out to good friend Noah Rubin in three sets. The Tennis Nerds(Joey Hanf) had a chance to sit down and talk with Stefan about a wide range of tennis subjects.

The Tennis Nerds: So you lost a tough three setter to Groth on Saturday, and you also lost a close three setter to Michael Pryzniezny last year in Newport. How much different is the level of play on the ATP tour?

Stefan Kozlov: I think it’s more about maintaining a high level. Whenever I get an opportunity to play in these tournaments my level rises so much. I think that I’m there with these guys to be honest. I should have beat Groth, and I think I maybe even should have qualified. Once you put yourself in that spot, you never know what can happen. My goal is to train hard and put myself in more positions like that

The Tennis Nerds: It seems like you’ve started to get a little more emotional on the court recently. Are you making a conscious effort to fire yourself up?

Kozlov: Recently I’ve been really focused, trying to win more matches. At this Wimbledon I put an emphasis on playing well and going deep in the tournament. I’ve gotta keep moving forward because this is my last year of Junior slams. Every match gets more and more important. I’ve always been emotional, it just depends what match I’m playing. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been an emotional guy. I feel like especially at tournaments like here it helps me a lot, I can get the crowd involved.

The Tennis Nerds: You, Francis(Tiafoe), and Michael(Mmoh) have been playing together for a very long time now. What’s it like to compete alongside two friends as you try to make your mark on the ATP World Tour? How much do you guys push each other.

Kozlov: I think it’s great that it happened. Every one of us wants to do better than the other. It’s really just a natural habit; we want to do better than each other. It’s been a lot of fun.

The Tennis Nerds: Last year you got the quarters of Wimbledon(Juniors) and this year you reached the final. How much do you like the grass?

Kozlov: I’m really comfortable on grass. I think it’s one of my best surfaces. Actually, I think it is my best surface. I’ve always felt comfortable on it. There’s not too many weeks on grass for me, only two, so hopefully I’ll be able to play more(grass court tournaments).

The Tennis Nerds: You and Jared(Donaldson) recieved at wild card to play doubles in the main draw, and you drew the Bryan Brothers. How excited are you about that?

Kozlov: The first day I found out I was really excited. Now it’s kinda sunk it a little bit, and it’s still pretty surreal. I’m just excited to play. I’m not really happy(about drawing the Bryans) because I know it’s going to be a tough match, but I honestly think we can win. So that’s how confident I am in myself and Jared. If we play well, you knew never know.

The Tennis Nerds: I assume with this being your last in junior slams that you won’t be going to college?

Kozlov: No, I’ve already turned pro.

The Tennis Nerds: With your ranking in the 800’s…..

Kozlov: I haven’t really played too many pro events yet, so I think I’m much higher than my ranking shows.

The Tennis Nerds: Yeah you’re still playing some juniors. What’s your plan for the future, what events are you going to be playing?

Kozlov: I’m going to play the US Open(Juniors), Kalamazoo–hopefully I’ll do well in Kalamazoo so I can get a Wild Card into the Open. But yeah I’m trying to play more ATP events, hopefully get into some qualifying draws, and then some challengers and futures.

The Tennis Nerds: The state of American men’s tennis has been discussed a lot obviously, and everybody wants to know who is next. How much pressure do you feel being perhaps the most talked about name for the future?

Kozlov: I feel zero pressure. We don’t have that many top Americans, but I don’t compare myself to them. I compare myself to the best in the world. I think the fact that we don’t have a top American motivates everyone, but I don’t really feel pressure because of it you know what I mean?

The Tennis Nerds: Yeah I understand what you’re saying.

Kozlov: It’s kinda weird, I just try to focus on what I need to do to become number one in the world. I don’t really look at the top 100 to see how many guys we(United States) have there. I know we’re going to get better and better, and we’ll have more guys there soon.

The Tennis Nerds: What part of your game have you worked on the most over the last six months? It looks like you’re fitness is improving.

Kozlov: Yeah, me and my dad have tried to get after that. Moving forward, tennis is a very physical sport, and with my height and size matches are going to be really physical. So I’ve definitely worked on my fitness, but others things as well.

The Tennis Nerds: About that, it seems like you’ve grown a little bit. How tall are you?

Kozlov: 6 feet

The Tennis Nerds: Are you still growing?

Kozlov: Yeah I think I’m definitely still growing. I’m trying to grow everyday, you know.{laughing}My dad is helping me out, giving me a lot of vitamins, and we’ve been focusing on stretching.

The Tennis Nerds: The typical American game these days usually involves a big serve and a big forehand. You play much more of an all court game. How did that come about?

Kozlov: You’re going to have to ask my dad that{laughing}. I had no control over that to be honest. Whatever my dad taught me, I listened. So yeah, you’ll have to ask him.

The Tennis Nerds: About your dad, I know he coached you for most of your life. How much a balance do you have right now between your dad and the USTA?

Kozlov: I’ve been with Gully(Tom Gullickson–USTA) the last two weeks. My full time coach is Nicolas Todero, but his wife is having a kid so he hasn’t been traveling. I would say it’s a 70/30 ratio. 70 percent with the USTA, and 30 percent with my dad. I think me and my dad have a really good connection, so everything is working well so far.

The Tennis Nerds: Thanks Stefan.

Kozlov: My pleasure.

 

Dudi Sela: Israeli Pride

Sela in Davis Cup (photo credit: Uri Lenz/ FLASH90)

Sela in Davis Cup
(photo credit: Uri Lenz/ FLASH90)

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis has headlined world news for the last three weeks. The ongoing battle reached nineteen days Saturday, with over 1000 civilian casualties already reported.  A 12 hour humanitarian cease-fire was proposed, but was eventually rejected by Hamas friday, who today announced that they have fired five rockets at Israel.

Israeli tennis player Dudi Sela resides in Tel Aviv, where Gaza has launched an aerial onslaught.

“It’s a very tough situation right now in Israel. It’s not easy for me to talk about. When I play I hear people in the crowd saying ‘play for the soldiers’. It’s very emotional. I play 100% just for them,”Sela said.

Saturday in Atlanta he reached the final of the BB&T Open, defeating Benjamin Becker 6-3 3-6 6-3, in the highest quality match of the tournament. Both players were striking the ball with such pace and precision. He’s into his first ATP World Tour final since 2008, where he lost to Andy Roddick in Beijing. He will play John Isner, the big serving American.

Sela’s play this week has drawn the attention of many Atlanta fans, and with each match that goes on, you can tell the Dudi Sela bandwagon has grown. ESPN’s Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert said they were “jumping on the Dudi Sela train.” After his win over Becker, the Atlanta crowd gave him a standing ovation for his efforts.

Sela recorded his 100th career tour level win friday, and his 101st today. His game is easy on the eyes, and features among the best one-handed backhands in all of tennis. At 5’9″, Sela generates an amazing amount of pace, and can take the ball very early when he wants to. When you’re small, you have to make up for it with great movement, and Dudi certainly does that. In his quarterfinal match against Vasek Pospisil, Sela executed one of the best shots you’ll see all year, an on-the-run  backhand down the line on match point.

Sela is no stranger to being a hero for Israel. His best performances have come in Davis Cup, where tennis players get the chance to represent their country. In all other tournaments throughout the year, players are competing individually. Tennis is the most individual sport in the world. There are no teammates, coaches, or caddies that can help you on the court. You’re all alone.

However, each year Davis Cup allows players to be a part of a team. For many, especially those who aren’t at the very top of the rankings, it is a top priority in their schedule. Israel has never been a tennis powerhouse, and Sela is the only singles player they have ranked inside the top 100.

In 2007, Sela defeated Fernando Gonzalez(who reached the Australian Open final that year) in a marathon five hour, five set match in front of a home crowd. This victory propelled Israel into the World Group for the first time since 1997.

Yaron Talpaz, the former sports director at Sport5 in Israel(equivalent to ESPN), talked about how the county rallied around Sela, especially during Davis Cup.

“Israel has been better than what the rankings show in team play and I think it’s part of the patriotic feeling the team had, especially in situations like these days(Iraeli-Palestinian conflict). And Dudi was always a big part of that ‘crazy’ good atmosphere,” Talpaz said.

Two years later, once again in the World Group, the Israeli squad made an improbable, drama-filled run. Sela produced a huge upset over Mikhail Youzhny, leading his team to the semfinals. A full story on Sela’s Davis Cup heroics can be found here, and it’s a great read. In that article, it talks about Sela getting stopped in public and praised for his performances.

Fans chanted, “Dudi, King of Israel” when he made a run into the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

There’s a lot of reasons to like Sela. For one, he’s about as honest of a player as you’ll hear from. After his quarterfinal match with Vasek Pospisil, Sela was asked why he took a medical timeout, despite looking fully fit.(Vasek Pospisil took one too, and received treatment twice more)

“(I took it) to do some thinking with myself about what I have to do. To relax,” Sela said.

Most players would have said they needed the MTO for a sore back, or a bum leg. But Sela readily admitted his decision and thought process, and won over many with his comments. After his dominate round of sixteen win over Sam Querrey, Sela talked about the state of his game, and was brutally honest.

“I’m serving terrible,”he said. The next day, after again having a less-than-stellar first serve percentage, Sela added,”Today was worse that terrible.” Saturday he served noticeably better, but was still not exactly thrilled. “Ehh It was okay. The last (point) the (first)serve was 79(mph) and the second serve was 78(mph), so I was not Isner today,” he said laughingly.

I spoke with a tournament volunteer, who was impressed with Sela’s level-headed, mild-mannered demeanor.

“Every other player in the draw has complained to some extent in the tournament. Dudi goes out there and doesn’t show any negative energy. He’s such a calm guy,” the volunteer said.

Want more? Sela has a great sense of humor. Last week in Bogota, he lost a close match to his good friend Ivo Karlovic, who towers over him at 6’11”. Instead of walking up to net and shaking Karlovic’s hand, Sela grabbed a chair from the court, stood on it, and gave Ivo a hug. It was an incredible moment. He hasn’t lost a match since, and appears to be playing some of the best tennis of his life.

With the crisis unfolding in his home country, Sela has given the Israeli people something to be happy about. You could feel how much it meant to him after the match when talking about the conflicts in his country. When all you can think about, hear about, and see is tragedy, people look for something, anything, to find reprieve. Dudi Sela is that reprieve for many in Israel.

Oz Havusha, a huge Sela fan who was born in Israel and now lives stateside, talked about how much Dudi means to his country.

“I am so happy for Dudi, I know how hard he’s worked for this his whole career. His success during this difficult time(for Israeli people) is really something to be excited about,” Havusha said.

Are you on the bandwagon yet? If not, you’re missing out.