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.

Quotes of the Day: Isner, Matosevic, Sela, Becker, Sock

The second installment of my new series “Quotes of the Day” is here. Friday in Atlanta was an interesting, action-packed day of tennis. The sun was out, and it was unbearably hot. I’ll let the players tell the rest of the story.

John Isner–The 6’10 American played a very….unique match against Marinko Matosevic. After winning the first set(Matosevic double fault), Isner appeared to be laboring. He sluggishly moved around the court, but out of nowhere broke serve at 3-all. He served it out easily.

On starting at 4 p.m.: “I actually preferred the 4 o’clock start. It wasn’t easy out there, but I’m done and it’s 6 o’clock as to where last night (I didn’t get off the court)until 11.”

On the struggles of playing in the heat: “I knew he was struggling out there a little bit, and he knew I was struggling out there a little bit. But a lot of times, in situations like that, it’s a big advantage for me. Even though I appear to be very tired, I muster up enough enough energy to pop some big serves.”

Again, on the heat: “At the beginning of the second set it felt like somebody threw us in the oven.” 

On looking tired: “A lot of people tell me I play possum out there, and I may do that. But I’m not breaking the rules by any means. I’m lollygagging around between points but  when we start the point I’m ready. A lot of times when I’m super tired I’ve played some of my best tennis because at that point I don’t have enough energy to run side to side. There’s only one option for, and that’s to just go for it.”

On heat compared to Atlanta Athletic Club(tourney site 2010): “I don’t think anything is ever going to get to that level. We could have made scrambled eggs on that court for sure.” 

On whether not he’ll be able to walk his dog(with him at tourney site) tonight: “Yes actually(laughing), I will. Last night I went to bed at almost 1:30 in the morning. Tonight I’ll go to bed at a normal time, walk the dog, and that puts me at ease.” 

Marinko Matosevic–Only a couple quotes, but they tell the story.

On the heat: “It was really hot. (He said emphaticallly) I would say it was as hot as the 43 degree celsius day this year in Australia when I played Nishikori, if not hotter. The sun was on your head and you couldn’t escape it.”

On whether or not Isner was playing possum: “No no no no no, he was definitely tired.” 

Dudi Sela–A very interesting match between he and Vasek Pospisil, which featured medical time-outs from both players, and some very high quality play, and some very low quality play. Sela pulled it out 7-5 1-6 6-2, recording his 100th tour level win.

On 100th tour level win: “I didn’t know that. Wow.(laughing) Yeah, that’s good. It’s nice to get your 100th win when you’re a break down in the third.”

On why he took MTO: “To do some thinking with myself about what I have to do. To relax.”

On incredible backhand winner on match point: “For me it’s my best shot, the backhand. So I’m happy I finished it off with a good backhand.”

On serving(said yesterday that he was “serving terrible”): “It was even worse than terrible(laughing). It was not good at all. I was already thinking about the second serve (before I hit the first serve).”

Benjamin Becker–The 33 year old has quietly cruised to the semifinals, today beating Thiemo De Bakker 6-4 6-2.

On his game: “It’s coming together. I’m feeling well, I’m playing well. The final in s-Hertogenbosch was big for me to gain some confidence, get some matches under my belt. The start of the year did not go the way I planned, but now I have the chance to play for another final, and that builds my confidence.”

On winning 83% of second serve points: “I think I was very consistent from the back, didn’t miss much. If I have that every match I have a very good chance to win, so that’s a good stat to have.”

On the chance of reaching another final at 33 years of age: “I know I’m at the end of my career, or at the later stages at least. Finals are not always around the corner, so obviously I want to take this opportunity and give it my best.” 

Jack Sock–The American took out Lukas Lacko 7-6(6) 6-2, and showed that he has matured greatly as player over the last 12 months. He looked confident, and was the stronger player mentally,

On finding a way to win: “It was a pretty rough start. He came out and was keeping the ball very deep, and pushed me behind the baseline. I just had to chip some returns back in play, extend some rallies, and I was able to do that and get the break at 4-5.”

On his spectacular one-handed backhand passing shot: “Against (Michael) Venus I had nearly the same ball, and hit it cross court, and I laced it pretty good. And the one today was really clean off the racket, so I had to look up at (my coach) and give him a smile because we had just been talking about it in the warmup.”

Quotes of the Day: Atlanta—–De Bakker, Anderson, Isner, Becker

I’m going to be experimenting with a new series for the site. Each day I’m live at an event, and have the chance to talk to players, I’m going to put out the best quotes from each player that day. I like to focus more on feature writing for The Tennis Nerds, and I know you guys can find a daily recap just about anywhere. So I hope I can give my readers some inside access into what the players are thinking and saying each day, rather than give a description of a match you probably watched yourself(because my readers are tennis nerds). Feedback is much appreciated, so just leave a comment or drop me a line on twitter.

Thiemo De Bakker–The Dutchman received a lucky loser after retiring in the final round of quallies. He upset two seed and last year’s finalist Kevin Anderson 6-4 7-5 in the round of 16 thursday.

On retirement from final round qualifying match: “I mean I knew there were Lucky Losers. I still did not want to lose. I tried to play the match normally but after 3 or 4 games my neck was starting to get stiff. I won the first set but it got worse. I’m competitive, I wanted to win the match, but I didn’t want to make the (injury) worse.”

Why he dropped in the rankings: “A lot of things(happened). I wasn’t ready mentally. I struggled with the practices. I just wasn’t ready to handle the pressure. Tennis was a hobby, and I didn’t really think about what I was doing. At the end of the year I got tired and I didn’t want to practice hard.”

Kevin Anderson–Rough day at the office for the South African. He faced 13 break points, a very high number for him and his big serve.

On his struggles thursday: “I definitely didn’t feel like my normal self out there, especially on the serve. I guess (I’ve had) a few weeks off, and I didn’t feel, in that match, a competitive mindset at all. Sometimes having a bye and playing a guy who has already played a few matches (can be tough). I felt a step behind the whole match.”

On scheduling: “I’m trying to give myself a few more breaks throughout the year, and take care of my body. You look at all the top guys; they’re playing fewer tournaments and that’s definitely my goal.”

On De Bakker’s play: “I thought he played quite well. He was picking my serve, swinging out a little bit. That made me feel like I needed to go for a bit more.”

John Isner–By far the best match of the day was contested between Isner and Robby Ginepri. Isner pulled it out 4-6 7-6(5) 7-5, saving two match points at 4-5 in the third set. He closed the match out with 4 straight aces. The Atlanta crowd was very engaged throughout.

On pluses/minuses of having first round bye: “Having a bye is nice, but at the same time your playing somebody who already knows the court and won a match. It’s not easy at all.”

On mindset when match point down: “Just pick a spot, and hit it. (Ginepri) was guessing quite a bit. When he guessed right on my serve, it came back every time. I got a little lucky. On the first one he guessed “T”, I served wide. On the second one, he guessed wide, I served “T”. It’s really a coin flip.”

On court speed: “It’s playing a little fast. It’s tough to get a rhythm. Especially with (Robby), he’s taking the ball early and not giving me much time.”

On Marinko Matosevic, his quarterfinal opponent: “He’s good on fast courts. He’s a little bit wacky, and he would probably say the same thing as well. He’s a character, I think he’s good for our game.”

On if getting new balls to serve out the match helped: “Yeah, I didn’t realize at first (that I was getting new balls). I’ll take serving 6-5 with new balls every day of the week.”

Benjamin Becker–The 33 year old German played exceptionally well against a quality opponent, Yen-Hsun Lu. He took the match in straights 6-4 6-3, winning 86% of first serve points.

On his performance in the match: “I think we both played well. It was a close encounter, he had some chances early on, but I saved them, and then capitalized on my first break point. He hits pretty hard and returns well, so I had to try and not let him dictate the points.”

On playing in the US: “I like it here, obviously. I live here, played in college here on hard courts, and (the surface) suits my game.”

On the offseason: “I try to relax, give my body a rest, get the batteries charged again. I try to hang out with my family, which I don’t get much time to do during the season. All of those things fire me up.”

On De Bakker, his quarterfinal opponent: “We all know he is very talented guy. His ranking (does not represent) how good  he actually is. He can play well and it’s going to be a tough match.”

 

 

SERIOUSLY, give me some feedback. Was this interesting or boring? Yes/No to continue the series?

Sela Into the Quarterfinals, Finally Trumps Big Server

Sela lines up his signature backhand.

Sela lines up his signature backhand.

Dudi Sela has had a tough time with tall, big serving players this year. He’s played John Isner once, losing in a third set tiebreak, and Ivo Karlovic three times, on each instance falling in straight sets with at least one tiebreak. Last week in Bogota, Columbia, after losing an incredibly tight match to Karlovic, Sela, who stands at 5’9,  brought a chair to the net, stood up  on it, and gave his good friend a hug. The tennis world embraced him for his sense of humor.

This week in Atlanta, he’s showing the tennis world that he’s not just a funny guy, but also a great player. He defeated Sam Querrey in dominant fashion, 6-2 6-4. The crowd attendance in Atlanta was fantastic(concert night), but Sela silenced them early, breaking the big serving American’s serve at 2-all in the first set. He was reading Querrey’s serve very well, and anytime Sam missed a first delivery, Sela was all over him. Querrey only won 6 of his 26 second serve points(23%) in the match, a shocking percentage for a 6’6 player.

Sela said afterwards that the game-plan was simple going into the match.

“When the rally is (extended), I think I am the favorite,” Sela said. “I tried to keep the ball in play, and when I had opportunities, I moved him around.”

Querrey is the second American that Sela has defeated this week; he crushed Atlanta favorite Donald Young 6-3 6-0 in the first round. The Israeli number one is a small guy, but has a beautiful one-handed backhand. He takes the racket back very high so he’s able to hit the high ball with the best of ‘em. Anytime he has can set up that shot, his opponent is in trouble. The forehand is no joke either, with Sela generating a lot of pace for his size.

Looking at the scoreline, one would think that Sela was happy with his performance. However, he said he could still improve vastly in this tournament.

“I served terrible,” Sela said. “I’m going to practice my serve a lot tomorrow.”

Sela was in a great mood talking to the press, cracking jokes often.

Sela was in a great mood talking to the press, cracking jokes often.

He was rolling in first serves around 95 m.p.h., but was still in control of nearly every point from the baseline. Querrey could never find a rhythm, and was frustrated all night long.

“I couldn’t get anything going,” Querrey said emphatically. “It was pretty bad all around. Lately I’ve had days where I get up and nothing is working, and today was one of those days. I was struggling to make the most routine forehands.”

Querrey said he had felt the same way yesterday in his doubles match; he was unable to keep the ball in the court. His best chance to get back in the match was when he broke back for 3-all in the second, with the Atlanta crowd yelling out in support. Even then, Querrey knew he wasn’t playing well.

“It was a game where he had three errors. I was just pushing the ball in. It wasn’t a break-back game where I was aggressive and made a couple big forehands. It was still going to be a struggle from that point,” Querrey said.

From that point on, it was all Sela. He closed the match out by crushing a few backhands. Sela’s hilarious and touching embrace with Karlovic last week was seen worldwide, and even made SportsCenter. He talked more about that moment after his match wednesday.

“Ivo and I are very good friends. I was thinking of taking the chair and serving it from the baseline, but the match was too close,” he said laughingly. Just imagine how epic that would have been.

Sela will play Canadian Vasek Pospisil in the quarterfinals, and is looking to reach his first tour level final of 2014. Sela has reached many quarterfinals this year, and said that he thought he had been playing well all year, except for the clay season.

“It’s not my surface. We have not one clay-court in Israel,” Sela said jokingly.

He may not have been the crowd favorite wednesday night, but he sure won over some fans wednesday(including this writer) with his gorgeous backhand and great personality.

Pasha Competes Well, Falls Short in First ATP Main Draw Singles Match

Pasha's serve topped out at 137 MPH

Pasha’s serve topped out at 137 MPH

One week ago, Nathan Pasha, a rising senior at the University of Georgia, was teaching tennis to youngsters at The John Beck Tennis Academy in Bogart, Georgia. He needed to make money to pay bills for his new off-campus house at UGA. However, a few days ago Pasha got a call from Atlanta tournament director Eddie Gonzalez, and he was offered a main draw wild card. Austin Smith was scheduled to get the WC, but he entered a futures event the same week and was forced to withdraw. Pasha couldn’t say no.

“I found out four days ago. I had been teaching for about two and half weeks, and that’s all I had been doing. So when I found out I tried to get back in shape, find some timing, and get ready as best I could in about three days,” Pasha said.

He had played a couple of futures events in June, including a run to the semifinals in Buffalo. But that combined with a long college tennis season had Pasha burnt out. He needed a break from tennis. Obviously playing an ATP event was good enough reason to interrupt that break.

Pasha played Slovakian Lukas Lacko tuesday, his first ever match against a top 100 player. Pasha has a similar build to frenchman Gael Monfils. He stands at 6’3, is lanky but strong, and his athleticism is incredible. His explosive movement is a sight for suffering American tennis fans’ eyes. In the first game of the match, Pasha hit the hardest serve of the tournament at that point. He blasted one down “T” at 136 M.P.H., and was averaging about 128 throughout the match.

Having only three days to prepare, it was clear that Pasha was a little off timing-wise, especially on the forehand side, where he has a very slight hitch in his backswing. He made quite a few errors off that side in the first set, as Lacko simply outclassed him from the baseline. The first set was over in 27 minutes, with Lacko taking it 6-2.

The second set started in similar fashion, with Lacko, who is a very pure ball striker, dominating nearly every exchange. But slowly Pasha started getting his foot into the match, extending rallies and mixing in the slice. His forehand is a plus shot when he gets it right, and at 4-3 in the second set, it started to click. He hit two inside-in winners to break Lacko, giving him a 5-3 lead, and let out a big yell of emotion. With the crowd behind him, he had a chance to serve out the set.

From there, things went downhill fast. He double-faulted four times to get broken straight back, and only won 2 of the final 18 points in the match, losing the second set 5-7. He admitted afterwards that nerves got the best of him.

“I’ve been playing tennis for 15 years. I have to make serves in that situation. It was all mental,” Pasha said. “I saw the finish line and I freaked out.”

Regardless, there is a lot of upside for Pasha, and he knows that a match like this can give him valuable experience for the future.

“I think in those situations I just need to slow down, take my time,” Pasha said. I’m sure Manny (Diaz) will talk to me about it and how I can learn from it.”

To play in your premier ATP World Tour singles match on only three days of preparation is extremely difficult, and a 6-2 7-5 scoreline is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Pasha has one year left at Georgia, where he’ll look to lead a stacked Bulldogs lineup to their first national championship  since a John Isner lead squad in 2007.

He said that he’s going to keep teaching tennis for the rest of the summer, make as much money as he can, and then prepare for his senior season. His life is vastly different than everybody else in the main draw of Atlanta.

When asked what he would take away form the match, Pasha was candid.

“I’m not gonna freak out.”

Smyczek Opens Atlanta Campaign in Dominant Fashion

Smyczek serving in the second set.

Smyczek serving in the second set.

Tim Smyczek defeated fellow American Ryan Harrison 6-0 6-2 in the first round of the BB&T Atlanta Open tuesday, needing only 53 minutes to secure the victory.

Harrison, who looked OK in his doubles match yesterday, was clearly suffering from some sort of illness, as well as blisters on his left foot. Regardless, the Wisconsin native looked sharp from start to finish, breaking serve five times, while holding his serve with relative ease the entire match. Smyczek, a favorite among many readers of this site, spoke with The Tennis Nerds and other reporters after the match.

“It was pretty clear that he wasn’t moving his best. Usually he moves very well, so I knew something was up,” Smyczek said.

Playing an injured opponent can often times be very difficult mentally, but Smyczek stayed focused throughout.

“I went out there with a really clear game-plan, and frankly that didn’t change much with him not moving so well. I’m really happy with the way I focused and I think there’s a lot of positives to take from this match,” Smyczek said. “It’s not easy to beat anybody that scoreline at this level, even if he is hurt.”

The man most call “Smee” has had a tough 2014 season. After reaching a career high ranking of 73 late last fall, he has suffered from injuries as well as mixed results. After reaching the semifinals in Maui, Smyczek was having shoulder problems, and that set him back a couple weeks. The main roadblock was knee-surgery that took place two months ago.

“It was a long road back. I came back quickly, but it took a while for me to feel like I was moving like I’m used to. But now I’m really happy with the way I’m feeling physically on the court,” Smyczek said, adding that he went through a good training block with coach Billy Heiser just before Wimbledon.

Smyczek is most remembered for his five set thriller against Marcel Granollers at the 2013 US Open, where he was the last American man standing in the draw. He talked about his desire to return to those stages.

“That’s what we play for, especially as an American. It was an honor to play in front of a lot of fans who were behind me. So that’s what we’re shooting for, to get back to that stage,” Smyczek said.

(Five fans wearing “S-M-Y-!-!” t-shirts were especially passionate that night)

The American stands at about 5’9, but he has a forehand that can do serious damage, as well as a rock solid backhand that is very flat and skids through the court. Smyczek served exceptionally well tuesday, making 81% of his first serves. Don’t be fooled, just because he’s small doesn’t mean he can’t crank it up to about 130 mph. (Referred to as “Smee-Bombs”) If that continues, look for him to have a lot of success in this tournament. He mentioned that a win like this could springboard him to greater success.

He will face off against Australian Marinko Matosevic in the second round. Matosevic also dispatched his opponent, Victor Estrella-Burgos, by the same exact scoreline, 6-0 6-2.

The two have met twice at the challenger level, each player holding one win. They last met in 2012 in Sarasota, where Smyczek won a tight three setter, 7-6(6) in the third.

“I know his game well,” Smyczek added. “He’s a great player, very steady but he has weapons. It’ll be tough.”