Friday, November 4, 2016

Smyczek: Prospects could end U.S. Slam title drought

American veteran Tim Smyczek, playing in last month's $100,000
Fairfield (Calif.) Challenger, has faced almost all of the United
States' top prospects. Photo by Paul Bauman 
   This is the last of a three-part series on the bright future of U.S. men's tennis.
   The last American man to win a Grand Slam singles title was Andy Roddick seemingly an eternity ago in the 2003 U.S. Open.
   Tim Smyczek might have played the next one.
   The United States has 10 men age 21 or younger, all with impressive credentials, ranked among the top 350 in the world. Smyczek, a 28-year-old U.S. veteran, has played eight of them a combined 22 times.
   Smyczek (pronounced SMEE-check) discussed four phenoms — Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson and Michael Mmoh — during last month's $100,000 Fairfield (Calif.) Challenger.
   All, according to Smyczek, are potential Grand Slam champions.
   "Yeah, they all have potential, but we all know that's not what it's about," cautioned Smyczek, who was seeded third in Fairfield and lost in the second round of Joris De Loore of Belgium. "When players Andy Murray's age were in the juniors, there were probably 10 to 15 guys that had potential to win Grand Slams, and two or three have (succeeded).
   "I think every one of those (U.S. prospects) has a huge upside, but it's silly to say, 'Oh, yeah, he's going to win a Grand Slam someday.' They all have huge potential, but who knows about Slams? It's tough to predict."
   Smyczek, only 5-foot-9 (1.75 meters) and 160 pounds (73 kilograms), is ranked No. 133 after reaching a career-high No. 68 early last year. He is best known for his gentlemanly gesture in a five-set loss to Rafael Nadal in the second round of last year's Australian Open. With Nadal serving for the match at 6-5, 30-0 in the fifth set, Smyczek allowed the Spanish star an extra first serve after a fan had yelled during his toss and caused a fault.
Taylor Fritz serves during last year's Fairfield
Challenger, which he won. Fritz, 19, leads U.S.
players 21 or younger at No. 73 in the world.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Smyczek is 1-1 against Fritz, 1-2 versus Tiafoe (pronounced Tee-AH-foe), 3-3 against Donaldson (who has won the last three meetings) and 1-1 versus Mmoh.
   Fritz, who turned 19 on Friday, leads the young Americans at No. 73 in the world. He won last year's Sacramento and Fairfield Challengers back to back.
   Tiafoe, 18, and Donaldson, 20, are next at No. 102 and No. 109, respectively. Both recently cracked the top 100 for the first time, Tiafoe by winning last month's $100,000 Stockton (Calif.) Challenger.
   Mmoh, 18, is ninth at No. 281. He reached the final of the $100,000 Tiburon (Calif.) Challenger as a qualifier in October and the semifinals in Stockton the following week while battling a strained abdominal muscle.
   Interestingly, the four players' rankings correspond to their heights. Fritz is 6-foot-4 (1.93 meters), Tiafoe and Donaldson are 6-foot-2 (1.88 meters), and Mmoh is 6-foot-1 (1.85 meters).
   Smyczek hesitated when asked which of the 10 young Americans in the top 350 impresses him the most.
   "It's a good question," he said. "Each one does some different things really well. Taylor Fritz obviously has had the most success, but he might be a little one-dimensional. He kind of has one speed — he hits the ball hard. If he gets backed into a corner, he hits the ball harder. I think he'll learn to play some defense a little better, and I also think he'll learn to come forward when it's the right time. Right now, he doesn't volley great, but he'll probably develop that part of his game going forward.
   "Frances is playing some really good tennis," Smyczek continued before Tiafoe lost in the second round in Fairfield and the first round the following week in Las Vegas. "He can do a lot of different things well. He moves well, he serves very well, and he can turn defense into offense really quickly. I've been very impressed with Frances, especially lately.
Frances Tiafoe reaches for a forehand while winning last month's $100,000
Stockton Challenger. Tiafoe, 18, "can turn defense into offense really
quickly," Smyczek said. Photo by Paul Bauman
   "The other guys, they're all progressing at their own rates. It's important for them to remember that. It's good to have competition among each other, and they'll help each other get better and climb up the rankings. At the same time, everybody goes at their own pace. Right now, Taylor Fritz might be the highest-ranked one. Maybe a year from now, Tiafoe will pass him up. It's hard to tell, but as a group, the under-21 guys are exciting to watch, for sure."
   Tiafoe has been known to lose his temper on the court, but Smyczek said it's not a major issue.
   "He doesn't get enough credit for controlling his emotions. He's not a basket case or anything like that. He's not breaking rackets every match or anything. I think he'll get better at thinking his way through matches and might learn to play a bit more cerebral-type tennis, but I don't think his emotions are really a liability," Smyczek suggested.
Jared Donaldson eyes a backhand in last year's
$100,000 Sacramento Challenger, in which he
was the runner-up to Fritz. Donaldson, 20, stun-
ned 14th-ranked David Goffin en route to the
third round of the U.S. Open as a qualifier this
past summer. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Donaldson, meanwhile, upset four top-50 players in top-level tournaments over the summer:
    —No. 33 Fabio Fognini of Italy en route to the round of 16 in Toronto as a qualifier.
    —No. 47 and former top-10 player Nicolas Almagro of Spain before losing 6-4 in the third set to No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in the second round at Cincinnati.
    —No. 14 David Goffin of Belgium and No. 32 Viktor Troicki of Serbia before falling to No. 23 Ivo Karlovic, 6-foot-11 (2.11 meters), in the third round of the U.S. Open as a qualifier.
   "I always thought very, very highly of (Donaldson) because he's played some really, really good tennis against me," Smyczek said. "I've seen him play some not-so-good tennis against other people. This summer, he really started to come into his own. He had a couple of really big wins at the tour level, and it culminated at the U.S. Open."
   Assessing the 6-foot-2 (1.88-meter), 160-pound (73-kilogram) Donaldson's strengths and weaknesses, Smyczek said: "First of all, as he gets a little older, he's probably going to put a little meat on his bones. He's pretty skinny, and some of those guys can be real susceptible to injuries, but he travels with a trainer. I think he's doing a lot of the right things in that respect.
   "His serve is good when it's on. He might start to work on becoming a little more consistent with his serve, but when he's serving well, it's a huge weapon. He moves well. His forehand is very, very big when he's set, stationary. His backhand is rock solid. He doesn't volley well yet, but his coaches are Taylor and Phil Dent. I don't know about Phil, but Taylor (was) a pretty good volleyer, so I think they'll probably be working on that as well."
   Phil, a 66-year-old Australia native, and Taylor Dent, a 35-year-old Southern California native, are father-son former pro players.
Michael Mmoh, 18, shows his athleticism en route
to the semifinals of the recent Stockton Challenger.
Mmoh also reached the final of the $100,000 Tibur-
on (Calif.) Challenger as a qualifier the previous
week. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Phil Dent climbed to No. 17 in singles, falling to Jimmy Connors in the 1974 Australian Open, and No. 9 in doubles, winning the 1975 Australian Open with countryman John Alexander. Suffice it to say Dent could volley.
   Taylor reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 2003 and at Wimbledon in 2005, and advanced to the singles semifinals of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He peaked at No. 21 in singles and No. 170 in doubles before back surgery derailed his career.
   Mmoh's Nigerian-born father, Tony, also played professionally, although his best singles ranking was No. 105 in 1987.
   "Michael is one of the most athletic people you will ever see on a tennis court," Reilly Opelka, a 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) U.S. prospect and close friend of Mmoh, told The New York Times last year. "There is nothing he can't do out there."
   Both of Smyczek's matches against Mmoh have been battles. Smyczek won 7-6 (2), 2-6, 7-5 in the first round of qualifying at Indian Wells in March. They met again in the Tiburon semifinals, and Mmoh saved a match point in a 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6) victory over third seed and defending champion.
   "I tend to be pretty high on the guys that beat me," Smyczek cracked, "and he played some really, really good tennis in Tiburon. The last time I played him, he was very, very defensive. His game was to run and play defense and let guys miss. I was surprised in Tiburon how offensive he played at times. That's a huge improvement in his game.
   "He's extremely physical for his age, way beyond his years in that sense. His serve has developed very well. Yeah, I think he can be extremely good, too."
   Smyczek also discussed Stefan Kozlov two years ago after losing to the U.S. phenom 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (1) in the semifinals of the $100,000 Sacramento Challenger. It was their first career meeting and Kozlov's first victory over a top-100 player. He was 16 years old at the time, and Smyczek was ranked No. 99.
Eighteen-year-old Stefan Kozlov, playing in
Tiburon last month, "can be a top-10 player
one day," according to former world No. 17
Sam Querrey. Photo by Paul Bauman
   "He plays a real unconventional style ... " observed Smyczek, who has beaten the
6-foot (1.83-meter) Kozlov in straight sets in both of their subsequent matches. "He uses the slice a lot — (including on) the forehand, which you don't see much — and he's good at sneaking into the net and knocking volleys off. You don't see the variety that he brings very much."
   In the Sacramento final, Kozlov lost to
6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Sam Querrey, a U.S. Davis Cup veteran, 6-3, 6-4. Afterward, Querrey predicted stardom for Kozlov.
   "He's got every shot in the book," declared Querrey, now ranked No. 29 after reaching a career-high No. 17 in 2011. "If he keeps on the path he's on, he can be a top-10 player one day."
   Now 18, Kozlov is ranked a career-high
No. 144, up from No. 351 at the beginning of 2016. He has beaten three top-100 players this year: No. 39 Steve Johnson and No. 96 Benjamin Becker on grass and No. 75 Damir Dzumhur on hardcourt.
   The other U.S. men age 21 or younger in the top 350 are No. 135 Ernesto Escobedo and No. 169 Noah Rubin (both 20), No. 229 Tommy Paul and No. 276 Opelka (both 19) and No. 342 Mackenzie McDonald.
   McDonald, a 21-year-old native of Piedmont in the San Francisco Bay Area, turned pro in June after a sensational junior year at UCLA. Only 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 145 pounds (66 kilograms), he became the first man since Matias Boeker of Georgia 15 years ago to sweep the NCAA singles and doubles titles.
   Fritz, Tiafoe and the other U.S. prospects hope to end the Grand Slam singles title drought for a once-dominant nation that now has no one in the top 20.
   "It would mean a lot to me," Tiafoe, the U.S.-born son of African immigrants, said in Stockton. "I'm just happy there's a bunch of good guys that are coming up with me so there's no real pressure on one person.
   "Noah, Stefan — Mmoh's been playing great — Tommy and Fritz and Donaldson ... there are so many guys under 21 playing well. I hope all of us can come up as a group in the top 20, top 10 one day, just like back in the day, how it used to be, how it needs to be."

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