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.”

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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*.

Cincinnati Early Round Recap

Nadal Yellow   It’s good to be back! Before I start with the main draw of Cincy, I just want to say that I was very impressed by the play of American youngster Mackenzie McDonald in qualies. He defeated 2 tough opponents in Nicolas Mahut and Steve Johnson to advance to his first ATP main draw. He was beaten down by David Goffin in the first round, but it’s good to know that American tennis has some bright young players that we can look forward to, As for the main draw, most of the matches have been fairly straight forward with all the top seeds advancing to the round of 16. I am going to break down the action by each quarter.

Novak Djokovic’s quarter: Djokovic was given no trouble today as he improved to 8 – 0 against Argentinian Juan Monaco by a score of 7 – 5, 6 – 2. Djokovic has a fairly routine route to the semis as he will play Goffin in the next. Goffin has plenty of talent, but no one (except Nadal right now) can stay with Nole from the baseline. Goffin did pick up a great win against red hot Vasek Pospisil in an epic tiebreaker in the third. Goffin saved 3 match points. As for the other part of the quarter, Milos Raonic continues to make an impact on the ATP. He recently became the first Canadian to crack the top 10 and has now picked up 2 solid wins to begin his campaign in Cincy. He defeated American youngster Jack Sock in three sets in the first round and then fought off Serbian big shot Janko Tipsarevic today. Tipsy picked up a good win against Sam Querrey in the first round. As for American #1 John Isner, he pulled off what could have been the biggest win of his year by upseting #8 seed Richard Gasquet in straight sets. I really thought this would be a tough one for Isner, but he looked a lot more aggresive today with his forehand and I think it flustered the Frenchman a little. Should be quite the serving display tomorrow when Isner and Raonic face off tomorrow,

David Ferrer’s quarter: Even though Ferrer and Del Potro both advanced to the round of 16, the real story of this quarter has been Ryan Harrison. Ryan picked up a huge win against Dolgopolov in the first round before his match up with Ferrer. Now given both of their game styles, u would think Ferrer would easily out grind Harrison. But from what I saw, Ryan was extremely aggresive. A completely different player that looked way more confident that he usual did, Ferrer did end up wearing Harrison down to win 6 – 4 in the third, but there is no doubt that the help from Brad Gilbert has certainly helped Ryan progress in his career. The big upset in this section was my boy James Blake defeating the Polish cannon, Jerzy Janowicz. Jerzy boy was certainly not at his best and James took advantage of that. Surprisingly, it was Blake’s defense that won him a lot of points. Blake lost to Dimitry Tursunov today in straights. Tursunov will play Ferrer tomorrow, The other part of the section was straight forward with Del Potro and Lopez advancing to play in the round of 16 as well.

Rafael Nadal’s quarter:

This is easily the most difficult quarter of the whole draw starting tomorrow. The only “surprise” was when Grigor Dimitrov defeated Nicolas Almagro. But Dimitrov is so talented that I wasn’t really shocked by that. Nice win for Brian Baker over Denis Istomin to get his campaign back on track after his injurt in Melbourne all those months ago. The round of 16 matchups can’t get much better in this quarter with Federer playing Haas and Nadal playing Dimitrov. That should be quite tasty.

Andy Murray’s quarter:

Murray cruised by Youzhny today in straights and will take on Frenchman Julien Benneteau tomorrow. Radek Stepanek had a nice win over Fabio Fognini in the first round before falling to Benneteau. Tomas Berdych also advanced easily over Jarkko Nieminen. The most surprising win came to Tommy Robredo over Stan Wawrinka. Both have had exceptional years though but Stan cracked the top 10 this year so that is certainly a surprise. But all of his should know better than to count out the Spaniard after what he did at Roland Garros. Robredo will be up against a stern test against Berdych tomorrow.

Enjoy everybody!

Day 2 Recap

Nole

 

Wimbledon Day 2 had it’s fair share of story lines. Although there were no huge upsets like day 1, there were way more 5 set matches. The World Number 1 was in action, and the American Men had a very up and down day.

Djokovic Sharp In Opener- I predicted that Florian Mayer would play 2 tight sets against Novak Djokovic, and that was a pretty good pick. He was close for about a set and a half, as Novak won in straight sets 6-3 7-5 6-4. Mayer played well, mixing it up between topspin, flat, and slice shots. Djokovic was way too good though, and he never dropped serve. His next two rounds will probably be easier than this match.

The Americans: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly- There were 9 American men in action Tuesday, and many of them struggled. We’ll start with the good. Denis Kudla continued his torrent run with a 5 set win over another qualifier James Duckworth, 6-1 in the fifth. Kudla will play Ivan Dodig next, and that’s a really good opportunity for the young Virginian to make the third round of a grand slam for the first time in his career. Another positive came on the other end of the spectrum, as 32 year old James Blake won his first match Wimbledon in 3 years. He beat Thiemo De Bakker in straight sets.

Now the bad. Ryan Harrison had a great opportunity against the 28 seed Jeremy Chardonnay Chardy, who has never had good results on grass. The first set went on serve until Harrison had a break point to serve for the set, but he missed an easy forehand. Chardy took the tiebreak, but Harrison rebounded to take the second set. He was the better player, but he didn’t take the numerous chances he had and eventually lost in 4 sets. Harrison falls to an atrocious 6-13 on the year. In an all-American match, Steve Johnson led by a break in the fifth set, but fell to the journeyman Bobby Reynolds.

The ugly. Sam Querrey had a tough first round opponent, Bernard Tomic. However, Tomic was not playing well, and quite frankly, it didn’t look like he cared. Querrey squandered 7 sets points in the first set, and went down 2 sets to none. After easily taking the next two, Querrey choked and lost fifth. Both players showed nearly no emotion, and Bernie seemed more fired up in his post match interview when he was defending his dad.

Young Guns Move On- Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and Kei Nishikori all advanced to the second round with straight set wins. Each of these players are in David Ferrer’s Quarter of the draw, so look for at least one of them to make a run.

My Picks- Not quite as good today, as I went 22 for 32. Looking back, I have no idea why I picked Michael Russel to win.

The Problem With American Men’s Tennis

isner

Yes, you’ve heard this a thousand times. Yes, its redundant. But yes, it needs to be talked about. For many years now, American Tennis has been in the gutter. Every year people talk about new hopes, young kids who are going to make a breakthrough. The truth is, people are saying those things out of want, not out of belief. The problem with American tennis runs deep.

Lets go back to the golden age of American Tennis. With players like Mcenroe, Connors, Sampras, Aggasi, and Courier, Americans were spoiled with success. Things were good, and we took it for granted.

Now lets look at the players of today, and we’ll even include Andy Roddick in this mix. Isner, Querrey, Harrison, Russel, Sock, Kudla, Johnson, Williams. Now how many of those guys first names do you know? Exactly.

Lets start with John Isner. The 6’10 monster has one of the top 3 biggest serves in the history of the sport. The trajectory of the serve combined with the raw power is nearly unreturnable. He should never get broken. Ever. And he usually doesn’t. It’s after the first ball that things go wrong. His forehand can actually be huge weapon, but he hardly uses it. After his huge serve, he’s basically a pusher. On his return games, he stands yards behind the baseline and plays defense. It is beyond frustrating to watch. Yesterday against Harrison, Isner was pushing and moonballing on break points. It was pathetic. And then after the match he said,”I played well.”

Next is Sam Querrey. He also has the huge serve, he’s a mere 6’6. I think he’s a way better player than Isner, but even he lacks key traits. He’s got the big forehand, and he uses it. It’s a very reliable shot, and he hits a lot of winners off that side. The problem is the backhand. It’s bad. He smothers it all the time, and especially when he’s under pressure. He played well against Simon yesterday, but let a break lead in the fourth set slip, and eventually lost in 5.

The future? A few names come up. Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock, even the infamous Donald Young comes to mind. Each of these players have their own problem. Harrison made it up into the top 50 last year, and things looked like they were coming together. But after a couple bad losses his season took a turn for the worse. He’s got the great serve, but after that he lacks the skills. His forehand can be good sometimes, but often he rolls it too much and the ball lands short. His backhand is kind of a mess, and combine that his short temper, and you realize he doesn’t quite have what it takes.

Jack Sock has some promise. He follows the American mold of  having a big serve, and he actually has a great forehand. But for as good as his forehand is, his backhand is equally as bad. He made it to the second round of the French, but thats his first tour level win outside of the US. Europe scares the Americans, and thats why they have little success over there. His progress will be interesting to follow.

So how do we fix this problem? It starts from the ground up. First off, players have to be flexible as kids. They have to practice on clay. Everybody else in the world does. Most importantly, coaches, and namely the USTA has to start developing more complete players. The big serve, big forehand can only get you so far. We have kids who have talent, and we have to use that talent. My pick for the next American number 1…Stefan Kozlov. Look him up.