Former Pro Makes Improbable Run Into 2015 US Open Main Draw

Anda Perianu and Andrei Deascu in mixed doubles action at the 2015 US Open.

Anda Perianu and Andrei Deascu in mixed doubles action at the 2015 US Open.

A version of this story is featured on our class’ Multimedia Journalism website, Ithaca Week. You can find it here. This story has been edited for a slightly more “tennis nerd”-ish audience.

By: Joey Hanf and Lindsey Witmer

Court 14 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is a small, cozy and often overshadowed destination for early round matches at the US Open. To the outsider, a first round mixed doubles encounter featuring Anda Perianu fit perfectly into that stereotype. Her journey to get there, however, was nothing short of extraordinary.

In the third round of the Sectional Qualifying for the US Open National Playoffs in Princeton, New Jersey, Perianu and her mixed doubles partner, Andrei Deascu, faced match point in the third set tiebreak. Down 8–9, Perianu was serving to the male opponent, a tall order given the magnitude of the situation. She missed her first serve, and was forced to play in safe on her second delivery. He missed the return, and two points later, Perianu and Daescu had won the match and advanced to the next round.

“We could have been out [of the tournament] right there,” Perianu said.

From that moment on, the duo did not drop another set — let alone another match — en route to a remarkable US Open main draw berth. They won 9 matches in total to earn a wild card into the mixed doubles draw at the most prestigious tennis tournament in the United States.

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Perianu, the facility manager and tennis director at the Reis Tennis Center, had not competed professionally since 2009. Born and raised in Romania, she achieved a career-high world ranking of #120 in singles during her time on the tour, but moved to Ithaca in 2011 to start a family with her husband Silviu Tanasiou. They have two daughters, Mia and Jess. Perianu gave birth to Jess in October 2014.

“My daughter begged me to stop playing because it was taking too much time from away her, and she had a full on tantrum, it was hilarious,” Perianu said.

Tanasiou, who is the head coach of the men’s tennis team at Cornell University, spoke about the surprising run his wife made.

“There was a combination of being shocked, and then extremely proud at the same time,” Tanasiou said. “I was stunned just because she had our baby girl about 11 months ago, and I never thought she would be able to play tennis at this level ever again considering she is 35.”

Perianu’s workload as a facility manager as well as her responsibilities of raising two daughters severely limited the amount of time she was able to put into training. Perianu had played only one practice match with Daescu before setting off into competition.

“Obviously my priorities have changed,” Perianu said. “We used to spend two times a day training and for this tournament I trained once every three days.”

While there have been more than a few mothers play professionally at a very high level, it is certainly not commonplace. Ben Rothenberg, a contributing writer for the New York Times, wrote an equally incredible story on Perianu’s mixed doubles partner Daescu back in September. Rothenberg spoke about the challenges mothers face when returning to tennis.

It’s significantly tougher to be a mother on tour because pregnancy and childbirth keeps women off court for months at a time,” Rothenberg said. “But Perianu did not look out of place at all, and she and Daescu were very competitive against one of the toughest teams in the tournament.”

As Rothenberg mentioned, Perianu and Daescu drew a strong opponent in their first round match at the US Open. They faced Max Mirnyi and Anastasia Rodionova. Both are accomplished doubles players, and Mirnyi has won 4 major titles in mixed doubles. The Romanian pairing held their own, but were ultimately outplayed on the big points. Mirnyi and Rodionova won the match 6–2, 6–4.

Shortly after the final handshake, Perianu’s oldest daughter Mia ran onto the court to see her mom. Tanasiou reflected on that experience, which he describes as amongst the most special in his life.

I think that moment was the most special one,” Tanasiou said, smiling. “Mia runs on the court and jumps in Anda’s arms and hugs her. For me as a father and as Anda’s husband it was the most special thing to see them at the US Open.”

Back in Ithaca, Perianu is recovering from a few bumps and bruises as well as resuming her duties at the Reis Tennis Center. She mentioned that if all goes well she plans to enter the Wildcard tournament with Daescu again next year. She said that her memories from this year were so satisfying that she would love to try to do it again.

“For me the whole experience of being there with two kids, strolling around in the locker rooms, changing diapers, it was completely different experience from when I was there seven years ago,” Perianu said. “It was amazing to have both kids with you watching from the stands.”

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Paul, Fritz to Play in All-American Boys’ Final

Tommy Paul in action.  Photo Credit: USTA

Tommy Paul in action.  Photo Credit: USTA

By: Steve Pratt

FLUSHING, N.Y. – Two American boys will battle it out for a junior Grand Slam singles title for the second time this year at a major, and once again it’s Taylor Fritz and Tommy Paul left standing.

The pair each won their respective semifinals on Saturday at the U.S. Open Junior Championships and will square off in Sunday’s final for a rematch of the French Open final the Lumberton, N.J., resident Paul won back in June.

Paul, an 18-year-old who is the No. 5 seed, dusted aside Australian qualifier Alex De Minaur with dropping a game, 6-0, 6-0, in his semifinal match played at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center.

“I think with Taylor it’s just about his power; he hits the ball so much harder than most people in the juniors,” said Paul, who was told once of Fritz’s serves was clocked at 138 miles per hour on Saturday. “You just have to be able to absorb that and play my game.”

Paul said he can only remember one other time during his junior career when he won without giving up a game. “It was my first match of 2015 in qualifying for a Futures event,” said Paul, who turned pro after he won the French Open instead of playing collegiately for the University of Georgia. “My coach once bet me I’d never do it because he joked I couldn’t focus long enough to win 6-0 6-0.

“I don’t think it was his best day,” Paul added. “I had an on day and didn’t miss too many balls. I’m not feeling bad for him because I want to win. It’s definitely tough to win 6-0 6-0.”

FRITZ MOVES ON TO FINAL

The top-seeded Fritz beat No. 11-seeded Yunseong Chung of Korea on Saturday in his semifinal match, 6-2, 6-3.

“It’s been a really good year,” said Fritz, who besides the final in Paris also made the semifinals at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. “I’d love to get the win. This is a better surface for me than the French Open (hard instead of red clay). Clay is my worst surface.”

Fritz said it is tougher to be the top seed. “There’s a target on your back and they have nothing to lose,” he said of his opponents. “They are going to play their best tennis against you. And you have to be focused and ready for that. They can come out dangerous.”

Fritz said he and Paul spoke before they played. “We both said let’s go out and get it done,” Fritz said. “We both wanted to play each other in the final. Wouldn’t want it any other way than two Americans in the final. We’ve been good friends for a long time.”

Paul has beaten Fritz the past two times they have played, but both on red clay and in three sets. Besides the French Open, Paul downed Fritz at a Futures event in Spain.

Recent U.S. Open champions on the boys’ side include current pros: Richard Gasquet (2002), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2003), Andy Murray (2004), and Grigor Dimitrov (2008).

The last time two American boys’ played each other in the U.S. Open Junior final was in 2010 when Jack Sock beat Denis Kudla. It also happened in 2000 when Andy Roddick beat Robby Ginepri.

Brandon Holt and Riley Smith Advance to U.S. Open Junior Doubles Final

Photo Credit: USTA

Photo Credit: USTA

By: Steve Pratt

FLUSHING, N.Y. – Brandon Holt and Riley Smith are making people forget who their tennis noteworthy parents are, and making names for themselves at this year’s U.S. Open.

The Southern California USTA wild-card team won their third straight super-tiebreakeron Friday in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Junior Championships, advancing toSunday’s final where they will face the Canadian team of Felix Auger Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov. They came back to beat the team of South African Lloyd George Harris and Japan’s Yosuke Watanuki in the semifinals, 4-6, 6-4, 10-8, at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center.

Holt is the son of Scott Holt and former world No. 1 Tracy Austin, who actually was on the schedule Friday and played in the women’s legends championship match on the same court as her son immediately following Holt’s match.

“I think she’s really proud,” Holt, 17, said of his mom, who won the U.S. Open in 1979 as a 16-year-old and again in 1981. “She’s really supportive and following our matches when she has more important things to do like warm up for her match; She’s watching us.”

Being back-to-back on an order of play sheet with your mom does not happen very often, especially at a Grand Slam. Perhaps inspired by her son, Austin went out with partner Gigi Fernandez and posted a super tiebreaker win of her own over Martina Navratilova and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. The two play in the final on Saturdayagainst Lindsay Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez.

Smith’s father is Peter Smith, the USC men’s coach who has won five NCAA team titles over the past seven years. Unfortunately, he head to return to Los Angeles for a USC team function and missed the match.

“It was strange because on his credential it said coach, and not dad, so that was a little different,” said Smith, who often plays doubles with his father. “He’s always just supporting us and wants us to do well. He’s taught me everything I know.”

Holt said he spent his younger years playing video games and eating candy and drinking Coke in the players’ lounge while at the U.S. Open with his mom, a tennis commentator for many years. “I would just sit in the suites and not really care about watching the tennis. I really like tennis, playing it and not watching it, I guess.”

With one more win at the U.S. Open, Holt will join his mother as a Grand Slam champion. “I thought we had a chance to make the final,” Holt said. “We had a really good Kalamazoo and there are some very good teams that were in that tournament.”

After Turning Pro, Taylor Fritz Opens Junior Play at US Open

Photo Credit: David Kenas/ASICS Easter Bowl

Photo Credit: David Kenas/ASICS Easter Bowl

 

By: Steve Pratt

FLUSHING, N.Y. – Now that the decision has been made, Taylor Fritz feels like he can relax and get down to the business of becoming a successful professional tennis player.

The 17-year-old Fritz from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., two weeks ago decided to forgo a full-ride scholarship to play at USC, instead signing a professional contract with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) where he will be managed by agent Rick Montz.

Fritz is currently the No. 1-ranked junior player in the world and the top seed in the U.S. Open Junior Boys’ Singles tournament, which began on Sunday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Fritz won his first round with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Ugo Humbert of France and next faces Yusuke Takahashi of Japan in the second round.

“I played it pretty safe today and felt confident in winning the match without going for all the shots I usually go for,” said Fritz, who lost in the first round of main draw qualifying here two weeks ago, and was granted a wild card in both men’s and mixed doubles.

Fritz said he would like to finish the year as the No. 1 junior in the world, which may mean playing two more events closer to his home in Mexico.

“It would be nice to get the No. 1 ranking at year-end,” he said. “I’ve come all this way so I might as well go for it. But that will be it. I’ll play this and two more junior tournaments. But I’m not going to play Eddie Herr or Junior Orange Bowl or go back to Japan. It’s not worth it to me to do that.”

Fritz said he knew he wanted to turn pro, but his father and former pro player Guy Fritz wanted him to get stronger with one year of playing college tennis. “I’ve always been sure about turning pro,” he said. “Even when I was awful I still was saying I’m going to turn pro. I’ll take some time off just to train. That was the main reason my dad wanted me to go to college; to get stronger. But I think I can do it better doing it away from college than doing it in college because I won’t have the distraction of school.

“I’ll come out around January or February and be ready.”

Fritz said he is already making better decisions now that he is professional. “I’m doing better with training and dieting,” he said. “I’m now a pro and I have to act like it. I’m eating healthier. My diet has gotten a lot better.”

He said the thing he’ll miss most about his diet choices is “going to In and Out when I’m home.”

Fritz practiced with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in New York, and said his game has improved a lot since he’s been here. “Surprisingly I’ve gotten a lot of court time and been able to work on a lot of things,” he said. “Everything just really feels good right now.”

Fritz said he loves watching Del Potro play because he’s so strong from both sides, but that his favorite all-time player is Pete Sampras.

Tiafoe and Kozlov Star in Kalamazoo Classic

Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov have been friends and competitors for a hefty portion of their lives. Both 17, they’ve shouldered enormous pressure and expectation as the next American tennis greats. Tiafoe(1) and Kozlov(3) each reached the USTA Boys 18s final without dropping a set, and with a US Open Main Draw Wild Card on the line, literally everything was to play for.

Before we get into the match itself, let’s look at each players’ journey and current standing in the last 12 months.

For Tiafoe, his 2014 campaign was marred by inconsistency and doubt regarding his somewhat unorthodox strokes. It was always clear that his athleticism and natural ability were more than enough to make a name for himself, but many (including myself) were worried that he may struggle to make the transition to the pro game. Well, Big Foe has pretty much put everyone to bed with his play in 2015. After starting the year on an absolute tear in futures, the College Park native went on an astonishing run in the USTA Har-Tru Challengers in April. His best result was in Tallahassee, where he beat Facundo Bagnis in a third set tiebreak before going on to make his first challenger final. His results in Tallahassee and Savannah earned him a WC into the main draw of the French Open.

Tiafoe’s season has also been highlighted by his signing with Roc Nation, an American entertainment company founded and owned by rapper Jay Z. Tiafoe has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and ATPWorldTour.com. He was the favorite going into Kalamazoo, on and off the court.

Stefan Kozlov’s story is very much the opposite. Kozlov had been the top ranked American boy in his age group for nearly his entire junior career. And early on in their professional career, Kozlov had more success. In October of 2014, Kozlov reached the final of the Sacramento Challenger, beating Tim Smyczek and Ryan Harrison among others.

However, Kozlov plays a much different game than Tiafoe. While Frances possesses massive weapons from nearly every position on the court, Stefan’s natural game relies much more on court positioning and general tennis IQ. Kozlov, like Tiafoe, has had his fair share of critics. Many argue that he does not have the weapons to damage top pros. Kozlov has struggled in 2015. After making a QF in Maui, Kozlov’s only main draw wins have come at the futures level. He lost to Taylor Fritz, another incredibly talented young American in January. With Tommy Paul and Reilly Opelka winning the French Open and Wimbledon Junior Titles respectively, Kozlov has fallen through the shuffle a bit and was going relatively under the radar in Kalamazoo.

He even admitted before his KZoo semifinal clash against Fritz that he felt he was the underdog. Many, including those with influential voices, have placed others in front of Kozlov in terms of potential career ceiling.

So, if you buy my line of thinking, Tiafoe vs Kozlov had much, much, more meaning than just a US Open Wild Card. This was about pride, confidence, mental strength and the battle within.

Tiafoe and Kozlov are very good friends, but have noticeably different personalities. I think they each represent the gradual rise of American tennis incredibly well–in significantly different ways.

Tiafoe is a streaky, massively talented young man. For the first two sets Sunday, he looked a league above Kozlov. Tiafoe’s forehand is one of the most explosive you will see, and his flat backhand as well as an increasingly powerful serve put him in aggressive positions in nearly every point. And Foe has filled out his body nicely in the last 12 months; he’s worked much harder off the court to get stronger and fitter, and the results have been clear.

Still, you can  get a different Frances Tiafoe every time he steps on the court. As Bjorn Fratangelo told The Tennis Nerds in Binghamton, sometimes it doesn’t even seem like Frances knows what he wants to do on court. And that often times plays to his advantage. His ability to disrupt opponents rhythm and tempo is extremely underrated.

Kozlov, again, represents a different trait in the rise of American tennis. Every time he steps on the court, Stefan is playing with a chip on his shoulder. Nothing is ever good enough for him, and he will fight every day until he gets to where he wants to be. This was never the more evident than today in Stowe Stadium. Down 6-2 6-4 4-2, nearly all juniors and even most pros are mentally checking out from the match. But Kozlov, who has the utmost confidence in himself, never let those thoughts creep in. Yes, Tiafoe missed opportunities to close out the match, but Kozlov’s relentless attack *mentally* made the finish line look so much further away than it actually was. I swear it felt like Kozlov saved upwards of 40 break points in the final 3 sets.

Kozlov, who was playing A LOT of defense in rallies, was getting worn down physically by Tiafoe, and began to cramp starting very early in the fourth set. His ability to fight that off repeatedly and push the match to five sets speaks volumes to his mental resilience. When he broke early in the fifth set, it really did look like he was going to pull off one of the greatest comebacks of all time. (He became the first player in Kalamazoo since 1971 to go from 2 sets to love down and push the match to 5 sets)

Which makes Frances Tiafoe’s victory 6-4 in the fifth so much more impressive. If he had won in straights it would have been great, but not nearly as significant. The quality of tennis in the 5-4 game was INSANE, with both guys fighting for their lives. The resolve Tiafoe showed was amazing, and his ability to stick to an aggressive game plan amid a bit of a mental breakdown shows how much he has matured as a player and as a person. Frances has earned his way into two Grand Slams this years, and it will be very fun to see how fares in the main draw.

Kozlov’s fight was truly inspirational, and it’s clear that he is headed in the right direction. His serve looked much better this week, and he seemed to get a fair amount of his swagger back. That being said, this is an absolutely brutal loss for Kozlov. To come back that far and then fall short is one of the toughest things to recover from in sports. Knowing the kid, I can tell you that this will motivate him even more.

Tiafoe and Kozlov each represent a wider emergence of American tennis. Their final at Kalamazoo should not soon be forgotten, and it is not the last time these two will battle in best of 5 set matches.

Tennis Nerd Takeaways From The US Open

Photo Credit: Ricky Dimon

Photo Credit: Ricky Dimon

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

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.”