Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Smyczek shows he can play with the big boys

Tim Smyzcek, the last American standing at the
U.S. Open, dismantled Noah Rubin, 17, in the
Sacramento Challenger. Photos by Paul Bauman
   SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Every young player dreams of reaching the top 100 in the world.
   It's more than a nice, round number. It assures direct entry into most top-level tournaments, providing a comfortable living.
   Most pros never get there. For those who do, it can be a long, hard road.
   Especially if you're 5-foot-9 (1.75 meters) and from frigid Milwaukee like Tim Smyczek.
   Seven years after turning pro, Smyczek (pronounced SMEE-chek) completed the journey on Monday. By reaching the semifinals of last week's $50,000 Napa Valley Challenger, he rose five spots to No. 100.
   "It's been a goal of mine for a long time," the second-seeded Smyczek said after dismantling Noah Rubin, a 17-year-old wild card from Long Island, N.Y., 7-6 (3), 6-0 today in the first round of the $100,000 Sacramento Pro Circuit Challenger. "In recent months, I've been trying not to focus on rankings. I was 101 earlier this year, and I think it got a little counterproductive dwelling on that. I haven't thought about it for a long time, but now that it's happened, it's kind of monkey-off-the-back feeling. I just feel like I can play now."
   Rubin also is small and fast. He has top-50 potential at a "minimum," his mentor, John McEnroe, has said.
   Smyczek is the highest remaining seed after the first round. Three seeds, all Americans, suffered upsets on a gorgeous 80-degree (26.7 Celsius) day at the Natomas Racquet Club.
   No. 4 Rajeev Ram, the 2006 runner-up at the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, lost to 18-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2). Kyrgios (pronounced KEER-ee-ose), 6-foot-4 (1.93 meters) with a devastating serve and forehand, is by far the youngest player in the top 200 at No. 191. He's almost 20 months younger than 20-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem, who's next. 
Rubin has top-50 potential at a "minimum," his mentor,
John McEnroe, has said.
   No. 5 Rhyne Williams fell to Great Britain's Daniel Evans, who reached the third round of the U.S. Open, 6-3, 7-6 (2). And No. 6 Alex Kuznetsov, a two-time Sacramento semifinalist, was edged by Peter Polansky of Canada 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2).
   Only half of the eight seeds survived the first round. Daniel Cox of Great Britain eliminated top seed Denis Kudla of Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday.
   The doubles draw also featured an upset today as Carsten Ball of Australia and Denys Molchanov of Ukraine nipped top-seeded Samuel Groth and Chris Guccione, both of Australia, 7-6 (5), 5-7 (10-6 match tiebreaker).
   Groth is credited with the fastest serve in history, 163.4 mph (263 kph) in last year's Busan (South Korea) Challenger. Ball and Guccione, former longtime partners, won the Sacramento doubles title in 2011.
   Smyczek was the last American man standing in the recent U.S. Open. He advanced to the third round, falling 7-5 in the fifth set to Marcel Granollers of Spain, to pocket $93,000. Americans John Isner (6-foot-10, 2.08 meters) and Jack Sock (6-foot-1, 1.85 meters) also lost in the third round, but Smyczek's match followed theirs.
   "It was fun," Smyczek, 25, said of his U.S. Open distinction. "That sort of thing doesn't happen often. We've had players at the top of the game for so long that it was kind of fluky that no American made it past the third round. There was a lot of attention, and I had a great crowd that last round."
Nick Kyrgios, 18, of Australia upset
fourth-seeded Rajeev Ram.
   The tournament began auspiciously for Smyczek. On the way to his first-round match, his chauffeur-driven courtesy car ran out of gas.
   "Luckily,  I played the second match, not first," Smyczek said. "We were on the highway, and I noticed we were getting passed by a lot of cars. I looked at the speedometer, and we were just coasting. Then all of a sudden, we had to pull over under an overpass. I got kind of lucky that somebody who was working at the tournament happened to be driving by, and he gave my coach and me a ride."
   Smyczek is tied for the second-shortest player in the top 100. No. 98 Michael Russell, a 35-year-old American, is 5-foot-8. No. 4 David Ferrer and No. 58 Albert Montanes, both of Spain, and No. 89 Dudi Sela of Israel are also 5-9. 
   Smyczek began playing at 3 when his older brother, Alec, started taking lessons. After starring in the juniors, Smyczek decided to forgo college, turn pro and move to Tampa, Fla., to train full-time. He admitted it was a big gamble at his size.
   "Absolutely. I was well aware of that, and my parents were aware of that," said Smyczek, whose father, Phil, is an electrical engineer and mother, Jan, is a housewife. "We just decided that if I were to go to school right away that either my studies or my tennis would suffer.
   "I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to be a professional tennis player. At the time, I didn't see that working out for me if I went to school. My parents said, 'You can go back to school anytime you want. Give (pro tennis) a shot while you're young.' "
   Smyczek, who qualified for the Australian Open in January and beat 6-foot-10 (2.08-meter) Ivo Karlovic in the first round, has earned $265,742 this year and $639,917 for his career. He possesses surprising power for his size but relies on his quickness, outstanding two-handed backhand and mental toughness.
   "I work really hard on my footwork, agility and conditioning because I'm not going to serve anybody off the court," he said. "I'm going to have to play long, physical points, so I need to train for that type of tennis."
   Now that Smyczek has cracked the top 100, one of his goals is to stay there.
   "I've got some points to defend this fall," he noted. "A major goal would be to be in the main draw of the Australian next year. And just keep climbing. Completely apart from the rankings, if I'm still making strides, that's the biggest thing."   
   Following are links to the singles and doubles draws and Wednesday's schedule:

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