The Tweener Podcast, Episode 2

In episode 2 of The Tweener Podcast, Joey and Zach are joined by Mike Cation. Cation is the play-by-play commentator on the USTA Pro Circuit. We discuss at length the issue that is rocking tennis; match fixing. We also talk to Mike about the upcoming year on the challenger tour, focusing on the young Americans. Finally, Zach and I give a little week 2 preview for the Australian Open. As always we would like to thank Stick It Wear?! for partnering with us. Make sure to check out their shirts!

Podcast Shortcuts 

01:35 — Tweener of the Week

05:10 — Mike Cation Interview Begins: Match Fixing

25:20 — Talking Maui and Young Americans

40:52 — Australian Open Second Week Preview

Tweener of the Week 

Stick It Wear?! Shirt of the Week

90sHAIR

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Fratangelo Wins Launceston Challenger, Breaks Top 200

Fratangelo watching from the stands in Melbourne. Photo via; Ben Rothenberg

Fratangelo watching from the stands in Melbourne.  Photo via: Ben Rothenberg

Bjorn Fratangelo had a strong 2014 season. He won five futures titles and reached the quarterfinals of two challengers. The 21 year old finished the year with a career high ranking of 261. Fratangelo’s ranking was just on the border of making the Australian Open Qualifying cut, and when The Tennis Nerds spoke to Fratangelo back in November, the Pittsburgh native seemed pretty confident he would make that cut.

Fast forward to January. Fratangelo flew to Melbourne after a decent week at the challenger in New Caledonia. He practiced with many fellow Americans, including his friend Bradley Klahn. As the days wound down, some players began to withdrawal and Bjorn was getting closer. Finally, the qualifying draw had come out; Fratangelo missed the cut by a mere two spots.

“It was brutal to be two out. It hurt, but in a way it motivated me. I tried to take positives and make it a good training week. To just be around that atmosphere is unbelievable,” Fratangelo told The Tennis Nerds Monday.

Despite missing the cut, Fratangelo stayed in Australia for three more weeks and played two $50,000 Challengers; Burnie and Launceston. He won two matches in Burnie before falling to Alex Bolt in the quarterfinals.

However, Fratangelo’s trip down under was capped by the biggest accomplishment of his professional career, as he won his maiden challenger title in Launceston, defeating a promising 18 year old, Hyeon Chung, 4-6 6-2 7-5.

“This win makes it all worth it. I put in a lot of work in Melbourne and it paid off,” Fratangelo said. “I thought (the final) was a good match from both of us. The ball striking was great. I think the crowd enjoyed it as well.”

Chung is already nearing the top 10o, and had just won the title in Burnie the week prior. The level of play from both, especially in the third set, was incredibly solid. Fratangelo had many chances in the third set, and finally broke serve after a marathon game at 5-5. On one deuce point, the two engaged in a very long exchange that ended with the American receiving some good fortune.

“That crazy drop shot I hit at 5 all got under his skin a bit. That was the luckiest shot I’ve ever hit,” Fratangelo said.

The title earned Fratangelo 80 ranking points, and he soared up the ATP rankings to a career high of #172 Monday. By comparison, in June of 2014, the American was as low at #535. The new ranking gives the American more opportunities to play higher level events.

“The ranking is definitely higher than I thought it would be,” Fratangelo said. “I’m gonna try to ride the wave out where I basically have no points coming off. Im gonna play Indian wells qualifying and then Irving(challenger). Now that I’m up there a bit I wanna keep testing myself against guys close to the top 100.”

Fratangelo’s roommate in Florida is fellow young American Mitchell Krueger, who himself has had a nice start to 2015. You can read our Q&A with Krueger here. Krueger won the doubles title in Launceston with Radu Albot, taking out the team of Hubble/Statham 11-9 in the third set super-tiebreak.

Fratangelo and Krueger have spent a lot of time together through juniors and now professionally.

“We’re like brothers. We’re sarcastic towards each together, and we have fun together,” Fratangelo said. “He’s an easy guy to get along with and live with. He’s helped me a lot as far as traveling goes. He can go for months, where I start to lose it a bit after a few weeks, but traveling with him has made me calm down a lot.”

Full match replay of Launceston Final:

http://new.livestream.com/accounts/5057055/events/3782996/videos/77163414/player?autoPlay=false&height=360&mute=false&width=640

Question and Answer: Mitchell Krueger

Krueger in action at USC.

Krueger in action at USC.

Mitchell Krueger celebrated his 21st birthday back in January, and he did so in style, winning the $15,000 Los Angeles Futures title on the same day he became legally allowed to order an alcoholic drink. Krueger had a successful junior career before turning pro at the age of 18. Now starting his third year on tour, the Dallas-Fort Worth native has reached a career high ranking of 311 in the world, and should move a few spots higher after picking up a win at the Burnie Challenger. The Tennis Nerds spoke with Krueger about his adjustment to life on tour, goals for the future, and much much more.

(Editors note: Make sure you read to the bottom, the quick fire questions at the end are some of the best)

The Tennis Nerds: You’re in Australia AGAIN! You’ve spent quite a bit of time over there the last 12 months. I know you joked it was almost your FIRST home at this point. What goes into your scheduling decisions? Does playing in an English-speaking country make you feel more comfortable? Give the average fan a short breakdown on why you schedule the way you do.

Mitchell Krueger: Yeah I’ve definitely spent a lot of time down in Australia. I honestly think I’ve been there more over the last four months than I have in Florida(laughing).

Well for one, I’m not afraid to travel outside the U.S. and leave my comfort zone a bit. I feel like too many Americans get comfortable just staying within North America and end up limiting themselves. To me, it gets a little tiring playing the same guys each and every tournament. A huge part of being a professional tennis player is enjoying the travel and I think my game benefits from seeing different competition, surfaces, and conditions all the time.

TTN: You started the year with a title at the $15k in LA, beating some strong players in the process. Do you see that result as a springboard for things to come? Does it take some pressure off in the coming weeks knowing you started the year well?

Krueger: That result was definitely huge for my confidence going into the beginning of the year. It’s always a great feeling to win a tournament, and for it to happen so early in the season gives me some added belief that I can really take a big step forward this year. I’m really excited for 2015.

TTN: What was your offseason like this year? Where did you train and what were you focusing on?

Krueger: I actually didn’t have a traditional offseason this year because I ended up playing a tournament in the Dominican Republic right before Christmas. The past two years we’ve always shut it down right around Thanksgiving and had a solid four week training block to get ready for the coming year. But this year I only really had two weeks. I was down in Boca Raton and managed to get some good fitness work in with Pat Etcheberry and court time with my coach Stan Boster. I actually think having such a short offseason helped me continue to play good tennis into the new year because the break between tournaments wasn’t too long.

TTN: Often times when you’re traveling to these tournaments you’ll go with a group of either fellow Americans or other players. Who are your favorite guys to travel with and why? Who provides the most comedic entertainment?

Krueger: I’ve definitely spent the most time traveling with Bjorn(Fratangelo), Brad(Klahn), and Jarmere(Jenkins). We all get along with each other great and know how to push one another to get better. It’s never a dull moment when we’re all together that’s for sure. I mean it’s hard not to give the comedic crown to the guy that has several hundred thousand views on a YouTube video of him face planting on concrete. It made me laugh so hard I started crying the first time I saw it(laughing).

TTN: When I talked to Bjorn(Fratangelo) a couple months ago, he said he had just finished stringing a racket. Do you string any of your own rackets?

Krueger: As much as my mom has begged me to learn, I still don’t know how to string rackets. When I’m training, the absolute last thing I want to do in my free time is string a racket. To me, that extra thirty minutes of sitting on the couch is worth the price of getting it strung by someone else(laughing).

TTN: American men’s tennis has gotten plenty of negative attention in the last few years. Does that motivate you guys? What is your view on the years ahead for American tennis?

Krueger: It’s a huge motivation to me. Very few people that report that kind of stuff actually realize the amount of work and sacrifice that goes into being a world class tennis player. It’s very frustrating when people talk about how Americans just don’t want it bad enough. I think in the next few years these same people will start to eat their words. I’m very optimistic and excited for the future of American men’s tennis. I’ve seen the work that myself and many others have put in, and I know it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world is able to see it too.

TTN: I know the debate between turning pro or going to college was relevant in your life and it’s been a big talking point lately. Now that you’ve spent a couple years on tour, what are your thoughts looking back on that decision?

Krueger: Obviously being an American, going to college and getting an education is something most kids are taught to strive for from a very young age. I can only speak for myself because everybody’s situation is different. I have absolutely no regrets in my decision to turn pro. The fact that I can wake up every day and devote myself 100% to getting better without any other distractions is amazing. Whenever I’m done playing tennis, I can always go back to school somewhere and get a degree if I want. There’s no age limit. The window for a person to make a living playing tennis is so small when compared to the rest of their life. I’m glad I made the decision to give myself the absolute best chance possible to reach my dreams.

TTN: There was a rather funny twitter exchange where your mental strength was discussed. It’s always seemed like one of the stronger points of your game. Where does that come from? How much did your upbringing and environment influence that?

Krueger: (Laughing) That tweet actually took me a bit by surprise because I seriously consider that one of the strongest aspects of my game. And I take it that Jarmere agrees with me because he actually had my back for once (laughing). I’ve always been insanely competitive in anything I do. I’ve never tanked anything in my entire life. I pride myself on never giving up on anything, whether it’s on court or off. Anyone that knows me can tell you the exact same thing. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I knew I could’ve given a little bit more effort. Win or lose, I can always rest easy knowing I gave it everything I had.

TTN: Which part of your game are you working on most specifically to improve right now?

Krueger: Right now I’m working mostly on really owning all my shots and understanding the ways I can use my game to win points and matches. Over the last couple years I’ve put a ton of time into strengthening both my serve and my forehand, and I think this next piece will really bring my game together. I’m very happy with the progress I’ve made and I’m excited to keep it going through the rest of 2015 and beyond.

TTN: You’re about to hit a career high ranking just a few spots outside the top 300. What are some of your short and long term goals ranking wise?

Krueger: Well my first really short term goal is to break top 300. After that, my goal is to make qualies of the slams this summer. I’m obviously getting close right now but I don’t like to put too much pressure on myself to hit a certain number. I know if I keep putting in the work and giving myself opportunities each week, I’ll keep moving up the rankings.

————————————————————————————————

Quick Fire Q’s

Favorite airline?

Krueger: American Airlines all the way. Hit platinum for the second year in a row.

Go-to drink and/or snack on flights?

Krueger: Either water or sprite. Sometimes Apple juice.

Again, on flights–Music, movie, book, or something else?

Krueger: I usually go all three. Movies if it’s a long flight. Music when I’m trying to sleep. And a book if I run out of good movies to watch.

Favorite challenger you’ve played?

Krueger: Gotta be Challenger of Dallas. Can’t go against my home tournament! Maui is a very close second though.

Favorite futures you’ve played?

Krueger: Probably some of the futures in Italy because of the food. Love the pizza.

Dallas Mavericks or Dallas Cowboys?

Krueger: This is tough. Probably gotta say Cowboys just because it’s easier to follow while I’m traveling because of their shorter season. I’ve been to more Mavs games though.

Tony Romo or Demarco Murray?

Krueger: Tony Romo all the way. Screw all the haters.(laughing)

Better NFL prospect: Stefan Kozlov or Nathan Ponwith?

Krueger: Koz probably won’t like this, but I gotta say that Ponwith’s catch off my perfect pass while being defended was a thing of beauty. At this point though, the Dolphins could definitely use Koz on offense. I really hope he reads this. (laughing)

Eat out or cook?

Krueger: Definitely eat out. As Bjorn can vouch for me, living with an Italian for the last few years has made me not want to embarrass myself in the kitchen.

Federer or Nadal?

Krueger: Federer for sure. He’s a GOAT.

 

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.

The Most Intriguing Tennis Match That Nobody Saw

Jared Donaldson. Daniel Cox. To the average tennis fan, these two names have absolutely no significance whatsoever. In fact, unless you’re a consistent follower of the challenger tour, odds are you’ve never heard of them. They faced off in the round of 16 at the Binghamton challenger wednesday night, and there were, undoubtably, very few watching. Binghamton, a short drive from Ithaca College(I may or may not attend this great institution), is far from a tennis hotbed. Perhaps the most notable/recent sporting occurrence in the area was the Binghamton Mets(New York Mets AA Affiliate) appearing on ESPN’s “Not Top 10.” You get the picture. What unfolded on the sparsely attended center court was nothing short of fascinating.

These two unheralded(and that’s putting it kindly) tennis players are very much the opposite of one another. Cox, a 23 year old from England, is generously measured by the ATP at 5’7, and had been battling predominately on the futures circuit for the last five or so years. He’s won 12 titles at professional tennis’ lowest tier, and because of that, his ranking has improved steadily into the low 200’s. He recently played in the biggest match of his career at Wimbledon, where he took a set off of world no. 37 Jeremy Chardy, before falling in four tight sets. Because his ranking has improved, he can now play challengers on a regular basis, and wednesday he was looking to reach his third challenger quarterfinal of 2014.

Jared Donaldson, in contrast,  is a 17 year old American, who is already 6’2, and still growing. Donaldson, who comes from a wealthy family, is one of a handful of young American juniors to have been touted at a future star. In February of 2013, he contemplated quitting tennis. After consulting with a sports psychologist, he decided against it. Donaldson was the runner up at the 2013 Kalamazoo nationals, and received a wildcard(speaking of wildcards…. read this) into the qualifying draw at the US Open, where he won two matches before falling in the third and final round. Obviously this created a lot of excitement, and rightfully so. The recent struggles that American male tennis players are having is something we hear just about every week, so I won’t babble on about that. Donaldson earned 16 ranking points in his first grand slam appearance, and with that came the opportunity to test the waters at the professional level. Over the last 10 months Jared has performed very well, and coming into wednesday’s encounter, he was on a 16 match winning streak, winning two futures titles and seeing his ranking reach a career high no. 343. He’s the number three ranked 17 year old, behind only Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric.

As I tuned into the stream, with the great Mike Cation on the call, I was vaguely interested. I’m on vacation at the beach, but figured I should watch Donaldson’s match and see how he’s progressed. Yes, I am a tennis nerd.

Cation was also looking forward to seeing how both would perform.

“I was thinking it was going to be one  of those matches where we see quite a few 10-15 stroke rallies. And frankly, I thought Cox was going to have the better end of it because I wasn’t sure if Donaldson could stay in the points long enough,” Cation said.

Early proceedings were dominated by the young American, who quickly jumped out to a 4-1 lead. A plus forehand and a vastly improved backhand were on a full display, with Donaldson hitting winners left and right. There wasn’t really much Cox could do, as Donaldson was dictating the vast majority of points. The two shots that really stood out for Jared were his powerful inside-out forehand, and a flat yet precise backhand down the line. He was hardly pushed on serve, and closed out the first set 6-2.

Cox is pretty much the definition of a grinder, or as he says, a “grafter”. He fights for every ball and tries to extend rallies. The longer it goes, the better for the Brit. Things were not going well for a set and a half, but slowly he was starting to get his foot in the door. At about this point the real drama of the match started to unfold. Donaldson was not happy with more than a few line calls, a fairly normal thing for a 17 year old tennis player. If you watch a junior or college tennis match you will see a lot of complaining and badgering between opponents, but it’s not something you see very often at the pro level, unless your last name is Fognini.

“At the beginning of the second set you could tell Donaldson was getting loose, and he was questioning every call. It did remind me of a juniors match,” Cation said. “You just don’t see that at this level very often. Dan Cox was frustrated because he didn’t have many openings to break and at a certain point he just said ‘stop questioning every call’.”

I watching on a my laptop, and a many of the calls did appear close, but it did seem like every time a ball was close to the line Donaldson was talking to the chair umpire.

For the next few games, the extra-curricular stuff remained relatively quiet, as Donaldson appeared to get Cox’s message. Jared had a few opportunities to break serve late in the second set, but could not convert. At 4-all, he went off the rails. The forehand that had been so effective suddenly couldn’t find the court. Cox broke and served out the set fairly easily. The rallies were starting to get longer, and Cox was now fully into the match, both physically and emotionally. He was the one who was pumping himself up.

The Brit broke to 2-1 in the third set, and then more drama ensued. As Cox served to consolidate the break, he started looking up and gesturing behind the court to Jared’s dad, Courtney Donaldson. Courtney had been clapping after his son was winning points, and that is also very normal. But Cox took exception, and yelled to the senior Donaldson that he shouldn’t be clapping after unforced errors. The one-sided banter ensued for the rest of that game, with Cox the only one engaging.

“I was not expecting anything like that. I would describe Dan as scrappy, but I’ve never seen him verbally engage in that manner during a match. It got ugly,” said Cation, who prefaced his comments by saying he thought that Courtney was not in the wrong.

I spoke to Courtney Donaldson after the match, and he described his perspective on the situation.

“I clapped for a point Jared won, and to be honest I don’t remember a mis-hit or a net chord in the point and I clapped and to be honest so did most of the other people.  It was a long point and I was happy to see Jared win the point and  he took offense.  But I left it at that.  As much as he was spouting off I just looked straight ahead and said nothing. I didn’t want to interject into the match. He was upset and in my opinion was for a lack of a better term un-professional but it is what is is he was in the middle of an intense match and lost his composure,” Donaldson said.

Who was right and who was wrong is really up to you. Brad Gilbert saw Cox on a regular basis from 2006-2008 while at the Lawn Tennis Association(LTA), and described Cox as somebody who was always “a feisty little guy on the court.”

To be honest, after Cox battled through a long service game to hold 3-1, I thought Donaldson would fold. He seemed to be on the edge, and after failing to break back he could have let it all go. But he fought hard, and made the rest of the match very exciting. He had chances to break in two more of Cox’s service games, but just couldn’t find a way to finish at the biggest moments. Cox closed the match out 6-4 in the third, and was very excited about his performance, giving a couple extended fist pumps. The post-match handshake was brief, but clean.

Tennis is a sport that can be intriguing at every level, from recreational to professional, and this match was a great example of that. A look at the scoreline and one would presume that it was just another tennis match, but it wasn’t. Every single point from about the second set on was tense, competitive, and fun. There was drama, high quality tennis, and a little comedy as well. What more could a fan ask for?

For Donaldson, his potential is overwhelming. He has all the tools to be a top player, and it might not be long before we see him at the big leagues. But we have to realize that he is a 17 year old, and he still has a lot of time to grow.

“The whole time I was saying to myself, ‘this is just part of the mental maturity that will certainly come for (Jared)’,” Cation added.

“Jared loves to compete, improve and play tennis. He enjoys the success but doesn’t let it affect his development,” father Courtney said.

As for Cox, he’s on to the quarterfinals, where a very winnable match against Darian King awaits. I hope the few of you who saw the match enjoyed it as much as I did

Wild Cards–Coveted and Appealing, but are they Beneficial?

Wild Cards. Those exciting, compelling tournament entries that everybody who hasn’t gotten direct acceptance wants. But as we look deeper into wild cards, you begin to notice very obvious trends on who receives them and how those players fare. We all want our favorite players to get wild cards, because that gives them an opportunity to play in upper level tournaments where they can play the best players and improve their ranking rapidly. However, research proves that often times accepting too many wild cards hurt a players development. Let’s take a look into who get’s wildcards, why they get them, and how they play in those matches. We will focus on a few players throughout.

Who Get’s ‘Em?

There are 61 ATP World Tour stand alone tournaments, 4 Grand Slams and in 2013 there were 149 Challenger tour events. At every level wild cards are given out. Slams give out 8 WC’s, Masters 1000’s 4 0r 5, and 500+250 events award 3. A number of things is taken into consideration when a tournament decides who to give a WC to, but predominately they are awarded to players from that tournaments country. Along with that, tournaments like to give WC’s to young players who have shown promise, players who can draw in fans, or older players who have a strong reputation but couldn’t get direct acceptance.

The real problem: not every country is equal, and this equates to a very uneven distribution of wild cards. For all the problems and discussion about the state of American tennis, guess who receives the most WC’s? Yepp, Americans, and it’s not even close. The USA is the only country to have  more than one Masters 1000, we have *three*(Indian Wells, Miami, and Cincinnati). We also have a Grand Slam(US Open), one 500, and 6 250’s. That is BY FAR the most tournaments for any country. And, not so coincidentally, our players receive the largest chunk of WC’s. Research by Jeff Sackmann in 2012 stated that the top 200 players of that time had received 748 WC’s before the age of 25. 139 of those, or 18.6%, went to just 7 American players–Mardy Fish, Donald Young, Ryan Harrison, Jesse Levine, John Isner, Sam Querrey and James Blake.

Now, you would think that said WC’s would help those players. But in most cases it does not. Let’s go case by case on three players: Donald Young, Jack Sock, and Ryan Harrison.

Donald Young

DY is the most infamous WC failure case of all time, and it wasn’t really his fault. Young reached the number 1 ranking in Juniors as a 15 year old, something unheard of at the time. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon Junior championships, garnering major attention from the USTA and tennis fans everywhere. With that hype came a lot of opportunities. Young has received 27(!!) main draw wildcards in his career, as well as 7 other tour level qualifying WC’s. His record in those tournaments is abysmal. He’s 14-34 overall, and he lost in the first round an astounding 25 times. And the real problem was that, as a 15 year old, he was getting main draw WC’s into Masters 1000 events, where he just was not physically or mentally mature enough to compete at that level. Through his first 10 WC’s, Young never reached the age of  18. He went 2-10, and lost in the first round 9 times.

Jack Sock

This is the guy that really sparked me to write this blog. I’ve followed him pretty closely over the last 3-4 years, and he seems to get more WC’s than anybody on tour. And it’s somewhat understandable. Sock was dominant as a US Junior. He won the USTA Junior National’s in Kalamazoo two years in a row, and wan’t even challenged too much in those tournaments. He was a man among boys. Jack’s serve and forehand are no doubt top 30 strokes. Combine all of that and what do you get? Wild cards, lots and lots of wild cards. Not counting this week’s tournament in Delray Beach, where Sock has a WC, he’s received 18 tour level wild cards. His record is 12-18, with 9 first round losses.

Something I came across that was fascinating to me, was an article from The Changeover, comparing Jack Sock and Denis Kudla. Sock beat Kudla in the 2010 US Open Juniors final, and both have been touted as American hopefuls. From May 2012 to May of 2013, their tennis lives were completely different. Sock received 9 WC’s, Kudla 1. Jack Sock’s wild cards guaranteed him over three times as much money as the lone wild card Denis Kudla received. The exact figure for the difference in guaranteed money was $48,610. That money can be crucial for youngsters trying to make it on tour. But the most fascinating thing is this: at the end of those 12 months, Kudla was the higher ranked player, at #115, while Sock was at #118. Denis qualified into a few tour events, and kept his head down and worked hard at the challenger level.

Ryan Harrison

As I researched Ryan I thought that he would have received less than the previous two, but he’s right there in between Sock and Young. Harrison also garnered a lot of attention(noticing a trend?) when he qualified and won a main draw match in Houston as a 15 year, the second younger player in the history of the ATP to do so. So Harrison started getting chances to play in big events at a very young age. He’s received 24 main draw wild cards, and although his record is a little better than the other two(18-24), he lost in the first round 12 times.

The Problem For All Three

Young, Sock, and Harrison all have different stories, but they share the same problem. Young was gifted everything as he transitioned from the Juniors to the Pro circuit. He had a couple nice results, but loss after loss in the first round does terrible things to a player. Eventually, in 2010-2011, Donald stopped getting WC’s, and dropped down to the challenger circuit. He started playing more matches, winning more matches, and that gave him confidence, after reaching the round of 16 at the 2011 US Open, Young got his ranking all the way up to 39, doing it the “hard” way. Of course he has since fallen off the grid, losing something like 17 straight first round matches, but has once again worked hard in the minors to inch his way back into the top 100, even playing in Davis Cup a couple weeks ago. However, those WC’s did terrible things to DY. His attitude is not good, and that is probably because of a multitude of things, but being handed everything certainly contributed to that attitude and persona.

For Sock, the problem is similar, but slightly different. Because he’s getting around 8 WC’s a year, he can play a lot of tour events. But one of Jack’s biggest issues has been his fitness, and when you’re losing first round every other week, that really hurts. His motivation to improve is just not good enough. His talent is off the charts, but he’s unwilling to sure up his backhand, and work hard to get on the same playing field physically as his peers.

Harrison had some nice results and cracked the top 50, and for about 8-9 months was playing exclusive at the tour level. But now that he’s dropped back down in the rankings, he is struggling to get back to where he was. There is no doubt in my mind that Ryan wants to be great, you can see it in his eyes every time he plays–except when he’s playing a challenger. When he’s playing at the lower level it appears he thinks he’s above his opposition. Last year, he had just come off a good result in Atlanta, making the Semis. He then travelled to Aptos to play a challenger. He played James Mcgee in the first round, and you could tell by his attitude and remarks that he thought he was 5 levels above James. Mcgee won the match because of it. Harrison has it engrained in his mind that he should be playing at the tour level, when really he needs to earn it, and prove he belongs there.

All three of these guys should take a page out of the next few players books.

Dominic Thiem

Thiem just had a great week in Rotterdam, taking Andy Murray to three sets. Similar to the three above players, Thiem was a highly touted junior. He reached the French Open final and won the Orange Bowl. However, he’s only received 7 main draw wildcards, and he’s 6-7 in those tournaments. Other than that, Thiem has done it the hard way, playing challengers and qualifying into tour events. In 2014, he’s qualified into Doha, Melbourne, and Rotterdam. This gives him match experience and toughness. (Speaking of toughness, have you read this article on Thiem fitness coach?) He’s gotten his ranking up inside the top 100 because of it.

Jiri Vesely

This one is even more extreme. Vesely has only been awarded *ONE* main draw wild card into tour events, and only 7 into challenger events(imagine if I counted American challenger WC’s?). He played 2013 almost exclusive at the challenger level, amassing a lot of points by going deep into almost every tournament he played. He’s now up to #81 in the world and has the chance to prove himself on the main tour.

Bradley Klahn

Now an American comparison. BK went a different route than Young, Sock, and Harrison, and decided to play college tennis before turning professional. He’s received a grand total of *THREE* wildcards, two of those to San Jose when he was playing across the bay at Stanford. Klahn has not been handed anything since graduating college, except for a WC into last years US Open. Instead he’s been grinding, working, and doing everything he can to improve. He’s now up to #67 in the world, and in great position to break the top 50. Think BK has a problem playing challengers? Does he feel entitled? Nope.

Conclusion and Solution

What I’m trying to say is that Young, Sock, Harrison, and all other American players who get numerous WC’s, are being halted in their progression. International players, who don’t have the same opportunities, are doing things the old fashioned way, and earning their place in tournaments. Obviously the blame can’t be put solely on the shoulder of young American players, because who wouldn’t take a WC into a tour event? But something has to change.

I think there needs to be a more merit-based system for awarding WC’s. There’s some of that now, such as the Australian Open Wildcard playoff, which forces players to win 3 matches to get a wildcard into the Aussie. Wimbledon has a great system. The winner of the Nottingham challenger(a grass court challenger a couple weeks before London) gets a WC into the main draw of Wimby. We need more WC’s to be given out like this.

My final idea might be an unpopular one. I think there should be a limit to the number of wild cards a player can receive per year. I think 4 is more than enough, but even that would force players to earn their way up the rankings. Either limit a players WC entries, or reduce the amount of WC’s each tournament gives out.

Keep in my mind that both Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic never received a main draw WC before they were 25. Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer were awarded a grand total of *2*.

Daniel Kosakowski: The Long Road Back

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In only his second full year on the professional tour, things were looking up for Daniel Kosakowski. He had just reached his first career Challenger final at an event in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, beating four quality players in the process. This result earned him 48 ATP points, shooting him up the rankings to a career high of number 230 in the world.

“I had just got acceptance into the qualifying draw for both the French Open and Wimbledon, two of my favorite tournaments growing up. I always dreamed of playing there,” said Kosakowski.

However, during his time in Mexico, Daniel began to feel a slight pain in his right shoulder. He didn’t think much of it at the time, because he was told it was just mild tendonitis, and he was playing some of the best tennis of his career. But as he traveled to Brazil to play a couple challenger events, the injury worsened. MRI results showed that he had suffered multiple ganglion cysts and a slight labral tear, and that surgery might be necessary.

He opted to undergo an aspiration. It was the least invasive and quickest way to fix the problem. This along with rest and physical therapy meant that Kosakowski was going to miss the next 6 months.

“It was devastating. But the time off really put things in perspective for me, and when I was able to come back on court I really took tennis more like a full time job,” Kosakowski said.

The 21 year old from Downey, California comes from a strong tennis playing family, with both his brother and sister playing at the collegiate level. Daniel entered the 2010-2011 as the top ranked recruit in the country, and chose to stay close to home and compete at UCLA. He spent the entire year playing #1 singles for the Bruins, and earned Rookie of the Year honors in the Pac 12.

Kosakowski decided to forgo his final three years in college to pursue his dream of playing professional tennis. “I played a lot of great players, but if I had stayed a year or two more my game might have plateaued, so I felt that to improve I needed to bump up to a higher level, challenge myself,” he said.

The transition to the pro tour is often very difficult for players, but Kosakowski had some immediate success by winning a 15K Futures tournament in Sacramento in June of 2011, defeating one of his rivals in college, Steve Johnson, in the final. He notched his first ATP World Tour victory later that summer, by winning three qualifying  matches and defeating Tim Smyczek in the first round of the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles, California. He played futures for the majority of next few months, before transitioning to the Challenger tour in 2012.

“The jump from futures to challengers is huge. The fitness level of most main draw players is much higher, and the mental aspect plays a much larger role in matches,” Kosakowski said.

Kosakowski showed constant improvement over the next year and half, before suffering the shoulder injury. Now that he’s back to being 100% healthy, Daniel has had a good start to 2014. He reached the third round of the Australian Open qualifying,  and reached the semi-finals of the Chitre Challenger last week. He’s beaten four top 200 players this year, and is looking to really gain some ground in the rankings this season.

“I’m going to take a hit after San Luis, but after that I have nothing to defend, so with the way I’m playing right now I think I can improve my ranking quite a bit, and hopefully get inside the top 200 by the end of the year,” Kosakowski said.

Daniel is one of only a handful of American players that uses a one-handed backhand, and he’s been working on that shot in particular extensively with his new coach Steven Amitraj. He feels his biggest strengths are his forehand and his fitness, but has been working hard on becoming a more complete player. Along with hitting for 3.5-4 hours per day, Daniel spends at least an hour a day focusing solely on fitness. Growing up he felt like he was never the most talented guy, but made up for that by “working twice as hard to catch up with everyone else.”

Kosakowski will turn 22 later this month, and will head down to Mexico to play a challenger in Morelos. It’s been a long road back for the youngster from So-Cal, but he knows he’ll give everything he’s got to reach his goals.

“When I turned 15, something happened inside me. I started having a lot more passion for the sport, and when I saw the improvement in my game I really started to believe in myself. I never imagined I would be where I’m at today, but I think my ceiling is very high and I’m going to work as hard as I can to reach my potential.”