Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Despite U.S. men's worst year ever, Kudla optimistic

Denis Kudla, shown in last week's Sacramento
Challenger, was the last American man remaining
in singles at Wimbledon. Photos by Paul Bauman
   TIBURON, Calif. — Mercifully for American men's tennis, the season will end in 5 1/2 weeks.
   Simply stated, this has been the worst year in U.S. men's history.
   No American reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open for the first time, and no U.S. man advanced to the third round at Wimbledon for the first time in 101 years.
   For one week last month, the United States was shut out of the top 20 in the world for the first time since the computerized rankings began 40 years ago.
   In addition, no American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick 10 years ago at the U.S. Open.
   At least Bob and Mike Bryan came within two match victories of the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men's doubles in 62 years.
   Despite the United States' woes in singles, 21-year-old Denis Kudla of Boca Raton, Fla., is optimistic. 
   "I don't think anyone is in his prime, except for John (Isner) and Sam (Querrey)," the top-seeded Kudla said today after crushing Austin Krajicek of Tampa, Fla., 6-0, 6-1 in 51 minutes in the second round of the $100,000 First Republic Bank Tiburon Challenger. "All the guys before were a lot older, at the end of their careers. I think every guy was at least 30, maybe 29. All the other guys are 19, 20, 21, 22, and we're coming up. We're right there — 100 (in the world), 95.
    "If you look at other big federations — the French, the Spanish — they don't have anyone 19, 20, 21. They may have one guy. We have maybe six, seven, even more than that coming up. Maybe in the next three or four years, I think something good is going to happen with American tennis."
Benjamin Mitchell, 20, of Australia edged No. 6 seed Rhyne
Williams 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (1) in 3 hours, 1 minute in the second
round of the $100,000 Tiburon Challenger.
   Two seeds, both Americans, lost to Australians at the Tiburon Peninsula Club. No. 5 Rajeev Ram fell to John-Patrick Smith 7-6 (2), 6-4, and No. 6 Rhyne Williams of Knoxville, Tenn., finally succumbed to 20-year-old Benjamin Mitchell 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (1) in 3 hours, 1 minute. Williams, 6-foot-1 (1.85 meters) with a pulverizing serve and forehand, saved one match point in the second set and five in the third set.
   Maybe the United States won't have to wait three or four years for a Grand Slam champion. Kudla said the 6-foot-10 (2.08-centimeter) Isner, 28, and the 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Querrey, 26, are capable of winning a Slam. But they have not advanced past the quarterfinals and fourth round, respectively.
   Isner is ranked No. 13 and Querrey No. 31. Prospects include 21-year-olds Jack Sock (No. 78), Kudla (No. 97) and Ryan Harrison (No. 106); 22-year-old Williams (No. 124); and 23-year-olds Bradley Klahn (No. 131) and Steve Johnson (No. 150).
   Further down the road are potential stars Christian Harrison, Ryan's 19-year-old brother, and Stefan Kozlov, 15.       
   In the meantime, Kudla contends that bad timing has victimized the United States at the highest level. Roger Federer of Switzerland, Rafael Nadal of Spain, Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Andy Murray of Great Britain have combined to win 37 of 40 Grand Slam singles titles since Roddick's triumph.
Williams saved six match points before
succumbing to Mitchell.
   "Tennis has gotten incredibly tough at the top level," said Kudla, the last American man remaining in singles at Wimbledon. "There are four guys setting the bar so high. I don't know if we'd be sitting in the same seat right now if those guys weren't there. I think Roddick would have seven, eight Slams and won a Slam probably in '09, '10, and it would be a (three- or four-year) drought instead of 10."
   Kudla rejects the argument that players from other countries are hungrier than Americans.
   "It's easy to say that, but I think we're pretty hungry," he said. "The toughest thing people sometimes don't look at — or maybe they do — is in other countries, tennis is the second sport. Everyone gets into tennis. Here, it's the seventh or eighth sport, so it's hard to get an unbelievable freak athlete into tennis and, even if (one is) into tennis, to like it."
   Kudla has a somewhat different perspective than other Americans. He moved from his native Ukraine to Fairfax, Va., with his family on his first birthday.   
   "I grew up in a European environment," said the 5-foot-11 (1.80-meter) Kudla, who skipped college to turn pro. "My parents were strict but not crazy strict. I was never spoiled. I wanted tennis. It was always my dream."
   Vladimir Kudla, a successful architect, took his family out of Ukraine shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed.
   "It was dangerous," Denis said. "There were a lot of drugs and corruption everywhere. It was definitely not an easy place to grow up. My dad just said, 'I don't want that lifestyle for my kids. Come to America; we can do whatever we want; it's a lot safer.'
   "I definitely wouldn't have been a tennis player if I had stayed in Ukraine. Yeah, there are (pro) players, but even those guys now, they're all playing somewhere else. They're in France or Germany or Spain. None of them stay in Ukraine.
The road from the upscale town of Tiburon to the tournament
site offers a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
   "The only reason we started in tennis is because we came to America. My dad had friends here, and they were like, 'Let's go play tennis.' Tennis wasn't even an idea at all (in Ukraine)."
   Kudla's parents "came here not speaking a word of English and picked it all up in a year or two," he said. "It's pretty amazing what they did."
  Kudla reminisced in an otherwise empty locker room at the Tiburon Peninsula Club, tucked away in the hills across the bay from San Francisco. The road from the upscale town of Tiburon to the club offers a spectacular view of the city to the left and the Golden Gate Bridge to the right.
   Kudla has lost only two games in two matches after losing in the first round as the top seed in the Sacramento Challenger to alternate Daniel Cox 7-5, 6-0.
   "Last week was a disaster," moaned Kudla, who will face Smith in Friday's quarterfinals. "I played awful. I was getting frustrated with everything for no reason and just wasn't able to control it. I was just kind of weak-minded a little bit.
   "You can't do that with these guys, because they'll jump all over you. Give them an inch to breathe, and they're going to take it and beat you. That's exactly what happened last week. Definitely, I learned from that quick."
   Overall, Kudla has enjoyed a breakthough year. He cracked the top 100 for the first time after Wimbledon, also reached the second round of the U.S. Open and advanced to the semifinals at Queen's Club in London on the elite ATP World Tour.
   "I'm really happy with my year, but I want more," said Kudla, who is close to ensuring a spot in the main draw of the Australian Open in January. "There are bigger goals — top 50 now, hopefully top 20, top 10 — just keep pushing, keep working from now to the end of the year."
   It can't come soon enough for U.S. men's tennis in general.
   Following are the Tiburon singles and doubles draws and Thursday's schedule:

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