While it may have been Valentine’s Day outside, there was very little love on the tennis court today at the SAP Open, particularly for the American contingent of players. It may not have been the most dazzling or brilliantly-played set of matches, but it certainly was a very close day of tennis. In the seven matches that took place on the main court at the HP Pavilion today, there were a total of eight tiebreakers played. The quality of play was varied, but it would be hard to ask for matches that were closer or more tense.
The schedule opened with a match between two qualifiers, neither of which had ever won or even played a main draw match on the ATP tour before. American collegiate player Dennis Lajola looked to have been in better form after his win over Yuki Bhambri the day before, but despite taking the first set in a tiebreak, nine points to seven, it was his opponent, Bulgarian Dimitar Kutrovsky, who won the match in a third-set tiebreak. This would turn out to be the theme for the day.
In the second match, it was a tiebreak in the second set that ultimately turned the tide. Qualifier Tim Smyczek, who had reached the quarterfinals at this event last year, came out on fire against the veteran Luxembourgian Gilles Muller, taking the first set by six games to two. In the second, Muller began to play himself into form, and his big, lefty serve only got more effective as the match continued. That proved to be enough of a difference for Muller to win the second set in a tiebreak, and then comfortably take the decider.
The best match of the day in terms of quality featured a match-up that may have been a new one on the ATP, but the opponents were very familiar with each other. Jack Sock and Denis Kudla had played in the final of the 2010 U.S. Open Boys’ Championships, and also twice in Futures events, the minor leagues of the tennis tour. In all three of those matches, it was Sock who had come out on top, but this time, Kudla was simply too strong from the baseline for the young phenom. At the end of the match, Kudla seemed more comfortable mentally – which may have come from having to win three matches in qualifying to gain entry into the main draw, while Sock had been doing media events and exhibitions. I have no doubt that these two 19-year olds will be playing each other many more times in the future.
Another participant in last night’s exhibition with John McEnroe and Jack Sock was NCAA champion Steve Johnson, who was looking for his first match win at the ATP level. He acquitted himself admirably, his level much higher than his ranking of 365 would suggest. But his opponent, the two-time titlist and former top fifty player Steve Darcis from Belgium, was slightly more accurate and consistent when it counted the most. The Belgian won the match in a pair of tiebreaks, but Johnson showed an enormous amount of smart serving and aggressive play, and there is no question he should expect to see his ranking rise over the course of the year.
Darcis’s compatriot, Xavier “X-Man” Malisse was up against another wildcard in the first evening match, where he took on former U.S. Open semifinalist Robbie Ginepri, who is recovering from having broken his arm in a bicycle accident and making his comeback on the tour. Ginepri certainly looked none the worse for wear, particularly off his backhand side, which was stunningly effective considering how recently Ginepri regained use of his left arm at all. On the other hand, his opponent seemed somewhat disinterested or disgruntled for reasons that were not entirely clear. In the only match of the day that didn’t involve a tiebreak, Ginepri bested Malisse 6-1, 6-2.
The final match of the night looked like it might be heading towards a similar scoreline after veteran grinder and scrapper Michael Russell took the first set against seventh seed Donald Young, six games to one. Young had a breakout season last year, but after making it to the final of the tournament in Thailand, last October, he’s lost five out of the seven matches he’s played. He looked to be on the verge of a breakthrough last fall, but he appears to be struggling with his form. He upped the level of his game significantly in the second set, which was a much tighter and more well-played set of tennis. While Russell is known for his consistency, the 33-year old started to make a few more errors near the end of the second set. Young looked poised to take advantage, breaking Russell to get to 5-3 and serve for the set, only to see a rash of unforced errors crop up in his game again. Ultimately, the last match of the day would be decided the same way the first one had been, in a hard-fought but very nervy tiebreak, with Russell proving to be a bit too solid for his opponent.
Tomorrow’s schedule includes a trio of huge servers: Sam Querrey, Andy Roddick, and Milos Raonic. I expect that there’s a good chance they’ll keep our streak of tiebreakers alive.