Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bublik, 20, predicted to reach top 10 – seriously

Alexander Bublik, left, overpowered Liam Broady, right, 6-2, 6-3 today to win
the $100,000 Nordic Naturals Challenger in Aptos, Calif. Photo by Paul Bauman
   APTOS, Calif. — The term "wacky" generally is not associated with professional tennis players.
   "Serious," sure. "Dedicated," yes. "Resilient," check.
   But wacky? Not when only 100 men and 100 women on a planet of 7.5 billion people can make a comfortable living in the sport.
   Then there's Alexander Bublik.
   The 20-year-old Russia native confessed at Wimbledon this year that watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can bore him.
   "It's interesting to see the highlights, how they're finishing (points), but when they're rallying for, like, 45 shots, you're sitting there thinking, Can I quit tennis please?"
   Playing Futures tournaments last year, the right-hander sometimes amused himself by hitting only trick shots or drop shots or, with a big lead, playing left-handed.
   At Indian Wells in March, Bublik interviewed Roger Federer and Andy Murray, among others, as part of a promotion for the inaugural Next Gen Finals, featuring the world's top 21-and-under men, in Milan in November.
   Some highlights:
   Bublik to Federer: "How can your hair be so perfect every time?"
   Federer: "It's not so perfect. It's a battle every day. Grow it out a little bit, and you'll see."
   Bublik to Murray: "What kind of advice can you give me to be as good as you are?"
   Murray: "A lot of training ... "
   Bublik: "Is that useful, training?"
   Having graduated to Challengers and some ATP and Grand Slam tournaments this year, Bublik is becoming more serious. It showed today as he overpowered qualifier Liam Broady of Great Britain 6-2, 6-3 in 62 minutes to win the $100,000 Nordic Naturals Challenger at the Seascape Sports Club.
   The Challenger, the oldest on the men's circuit in the United States, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. Past competitors include International Tennis Hall of Famers Patrick Rafter and Michael Chang and future Hall of Famers Murray, Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan.
   The unseeded Bublik had lost in the quarterfinals and second round of U.S. Challengers in the previous two weeks.
   "I just decided, OK, let's try to be serious," a bubbly Bublik, who switched his allegiance to Kazakhstan because it offered financial support, said after celebrating his title with a dip in the pool. "I need to find a balance between my jokes and serious tennis, so this week I was quite calm. I didn't mess around that much, so that's why I won the tournament."
   Broady predicts stardom for Bublik, who stands 6-foot-4 (1.93 meters) and weighs only 165 pounds (75.0 kilograms).
   "I think he has the potential to go all the way," the affable Broady, a 23-year-old left-hander, said after facing Bublik for the first time. "There's a reason he's ranked (125) already. He's very (flashy), and I'm sure he'll refine his talents as he gets older and gets more experience. He's going to be a scary prospect.
   " ... You see the way he's built. He's still not fully grown into his frame yet. He's got six, eight years before he reaches his peak. I don't see why he can't be top 10."
   Bublik improved to No. 104 in the world with the title, putting him on the verge of direct entry into the U.S. Open, and pocketed $14,400 for his second Challenger singles title.
   Bublik, who lost to world No. 1 and defending champion Murray 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 in the first round at Wimbledon early last month as a lucky loser, is happy with his progress.
   "I feel great," he crowed. "It's my first year on tour. Last year I was playing Futures and I started, like, 900 (in the world), so it's been great. I had a rough clay-court season this year, but I'm getting back my rhythm after Wimbledon. The (match) I played with Andy gave me a lot of confidence. I improved a lot after that."
   There were glimpses of the old Bublik during the week in Aptos.
   While Dennis Novikov of Milpitas in the San Francisco Bay Area took a medical timeout in Friday's quarterfinals, Bublik entertained himself and the crowd by repeatedly bouncing a ball on the edge of his racket and off both feet.
   In the final, Bublik frequently hit drop shots and then became whimsical in the last game. Hitting his second serve as hard as his first, he double-faulted three consecutive times to give Broady a break point.
   "I just said, 'OK, everything or nothing,' " Bublik admitted.
   Bublik got back to deuce with a service winner, earned his third match point with a backhand volley winner and closed out the match with an ace down the middle.
   Bublik, who finished with six aces, still likes to have fun on the court.
   "That's my way of playing," he said. "It's a game. Of course, it's a great sport and you need to work hard, but you need to enjoy every moment of it. Tennis careers are not that (long)."
   Off the court, Bublik enjoys rap music. He has two Eminem quotes tattooed on his arms: "You won't break me; you just make me stronger than I was," and "Always be a leader and not a follower."
   Bublik already has beaten two top-20 players, No. 13 Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain and No. 16 Lucas Pouille of France, and it's easy see why. Power.
   Bublik crushed his serve and groundstrokes against Broady. After the 6-foot (1.83-meter) Broady held for 2-2 in the first set, Bublik reeled off the next seven games to lead 3-0 in the second set. 
   Broady took the next two games, breaking serve for the only time in the match, but Bublik broke right back with a perfect lob. In the next-to-last game, Bublik unleashed a cross-court forehand passing shot so hard that Broady could only flail helplessly at it.
    "Sasha played really good today," said Broady, who had lost in the first round in Aptos in each of the past two years. "He's obviously got a fantastic serve, which in finals and big moments really helps. I don't think I served as well today as I have during the week. I was a little bit nervous, but that doesn't usually stop me from playing well. It was more Sasha's fault today that I didn't play very well. I'll learn from it and come back stronger."
   Broady played his seventh match in nine days.
   "I said to my coach in the quarterfinals I started to feel little bit fatigued," he conceded. "By then, it was my fifth match, so it was like I was making the finals of a tournament. Then the semifinals ... I was a little bit sluggish (today), just one or two percent.
   "I'd have loved to come out here and been fresh as a daisy, but I think in the finals, no one is ever going to be completely fresh. I gave it the best I could with the situation, and he was too good on the day anyway."
   Broady became the third British singles finalist, and second to emerge from qualifying, in Aptos in the past two years. Dan Evans beat qualifier Cameron Norrie, who was born in South Africa to British parents and grew up in New Zealand, last year. Also, Scotland's Murray won the Aptos title in 2005 at age 18.
   Evans, 27, faces a suspension of up to four years after testing positive for cocaine in April.
   Broady, who fell to 0-2 in Challenger finals, jumped from No. 336 to No. 256 and collected $8,480. He's fighting his way back after climbing to a career-high No. 158 two years ago at age 21.
   "I was saying this to a friend the other day: I didn't really know why I got to (158)," mused Broady, whose older sister, 6-foot-2 (1.89-meter) Naomi, is ranked No. 127 after reaching a career-high No. 76 last year in March. "I was quite young, just playing tennis and playing well. I was on a wave of confidence, and before I knew it, the results stopped coming a little bit, and I didn't really know how to get them back.
   "I split from my coach (David Sammel) and didn't have one for about nine months. I just did what any young guy would do. I enjoyed myself and went out with my friends. I played tennis to the best of my ability, but I had no direction.
   "As I'm sure anyone can relate in any walk of life, it's very difficult to do things when you have no direction, but I called my coach at the end of November last year and said, 'Look, I want to sort things out. I'm hungry; I want to play tennis again.' I hope we're going to start seeing dividends for the last eight months of hard work."  
Neal Skupski, left, and Jonathan Erlich won the doubles title in their first
tournament together. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Broady's countryman, Neal Skupski, teamed with Jonathan Erlich of Israel to win the doubles title in their first tournament together. Seeded third, they edged fourth-seeded Alex Bolt and Jordan Thompson of Australia 6-3, 2-6 [10-8].
   On the last point, Bolt and Thompson had a sitter in the middle of the court at the service line but let the ball go between them for a winner.
   Both Erlich, 40, and Skupski, 27, said they had never had a match end that way.
   "We don't mind," Skupski cracked. "We're happy with the result."
   Erlich and Skupski, who split $6,200, saved five match points combined in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
   Erlich also paired with countryman Andy Ram to win the Aptos Challenger in 2013 and the Australian Open in 2008.
   Here are the complete Nordic Naturals Challenger singles and doubles draws.    

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